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Maryland football vs. West Virginia preview

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The Terps have a challenging matchup ahead of them at home to open the season.

UMTerps

It hasn’t even been a full calendar year since Maryland football played its season opener against Northwestern during a coronavirus-impacted campaign, but the Terps will welcome fans back to College Park tomorrow with a new season and a matchup against the West Virginia Mountaineers in store.

“We welcome a big-time opponent in West Virginia, you know, this is a natural border rivalry, a game that’s been played a lot of years around here... it’s one of those games that was always on the calendar,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “When you have an opportunity to play a team like West Virginia to open up, as I told our team, it gives us a pretty fast idea as to, you know, what type of team we’re going to be.”

Maryland’s 2020 season saw a 2-3 record, mixed in with pandemic complications and scheduling cancellations in what was a very hectic season within the Big Ten. There were certainly some highs and lows for the Terps last season, but now the attention turns to a potentially bright 2021 for the program.

It’ll be the likes of West Virginia opening the season against a growing Maryland team, and the Mountaineers will be the Terps’ first nonconference game since competing against Temple on the road back in September 2019.

“We lost the last nine out of 10 so that’s not how you ever want to go into a rivalry but this, this should be a nice rivalry and it should get reignited after this season, definitely,” senior defensive back Jordan Mosley said ahead of the matchup.

After facing West Virginia at home, Maryland follows that matchup with another game in College Park just a week later versus Howard and then two weeks later the Terps open up Big Ten play against Illinois.

The matchup with the Mountaineers kicks off at around 3:30 p.m. and the game will air on ESPN on Sept. 4.

West Virginia Mountaineers (0-0)

2020 record: 6-4 (4-4 Big 12)

Head coach Neal Brown led West Virginia to a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big 12 last season as his team captured six wins in 10 games en route to a sixth-place finish in the conference. Brown is now in his third season coaching the program. He helped cap off a decent year for the Mountaineers with a bowl appearance victory against Army in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, in which West Virginia came away with a 24-21 win.

Brown has helped the Mountaineers establish one of the best defenses in the Big 12. Just a season ago, a year removed from finishing 5-7 in 2019, West Virginia surrendered the least amount of touchdowns in the conference, while also being the only team in the Big 12 to concede under 21 points per game. The Mountaineers are expected to be a talented team in 2021 once again under Brown’s leadership and the program is already receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll before the season officially gets underway.

Players to Know

Jarret Doege, redshirt senior quarterback, 6’2, 208 pounds, No. 2 — Doege is a former transfer from Bowling Green and began starting games at quarterback for West Virginia as a junior in 2019. He played in all 10 games last season for the Mountaineers and averaged just over 258 yards per game. His completion percentage sat around 64% on 374 pass attempts, but what’s intriguing is Doege’s exceptional decision-making as he had only four interceptions compared to 14 touchdowns in 2020. He's a smart quarterback that racks up yards and gets the job done, and this year shouldn't be any different.

“I think the big thing with him is he gets the ball out quick, a veteran in the system now,” Locksley said about the quarterback. “I think his accuracy, his knowledge and his ability to orchestrate things on offense, he’s one of those guys that, you know, you can tell he plays with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder and so I expect them to be very well-coached and execute at a high level, and we’ve got to do a great job on defense.”

Leddie Brown, senior running back, 5’11, 216 pounds, No. 4 — While Maryland lost starting running back Jake Funk, West Virginia is retaining its stability at the No. 1 running back spot with Brown coming back to the program for another season. Brown made the First Team All-Big 12 squad after racking up 1,010 yards on 199 attempts in 10 games for the Mountaineers. He had a career-high in yards per carry last year as well, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He’ll receive the majority of the touches out of the Mountaineers’ backfield come Saturday.

“He’s one of those guys that, you know, can hit the home run, runs behind his pads,” Locksley said of Brown. “You try to load the box up and make the safety his guy, he wins that battle, you know, the one-on-one battle against safeties and definitely on our radar as to who we have to do a great job of defending.”

Alonzo Addae, redshirt senior safety, 5’10, 190 pounds, No. 4 — Addae is entering his sixth season with the aid of coronavirus eligibility rules and he will be an important piece of West Virginia’s defense this year. Addae had a strong season and notched a team-best 38 solo tackles and two interceptions in 2020. The experienced safety is projected to be one of the best in the Big 12. Addae was named to the Preseason All-Big 12 Second Team by Athlon Sports. He’ll be all over the field against Maryland and he’s one of the most impactful defenders on the roster.

Strength

Shutdown Defense. When looking at the Mountaineers the one aspect of the program that immediately sticks out is the team’s stellar defense. West Virginia is returning a healthy amount of last year’s defensive starters and this season could see much more of the same on the defensive side of the ball. In 2020 within the Big 12, West Virginia gave up the least amount of points per game (20.5), touchdowns (26) and field goals (8). The program also let up just 205 points last season, 34 less than the next best team in the conference.

Weakness

Running game depth. While West Virginia’s passing game is fairly solid and has experienced players returning to the roster, the team’s running game leaves much to be desired. In 10 games last season, the Mountaineers finished eighth out of 10 teams in the Big 12 in total rushing yards per game. West Virginia averaged 135.1 rushing yards and just 3.8 yards per carry a year ago. The program is returning leading rusher Leddie Brown (1,010 net yards last season in 10 games), which should balance the running game, but if Maryland’s defensive line can stop the run it can give it a critical advantage on Saturday.

Three Things to Watch

1. How will Maryland’s running game fare against West Virginia’s defense? Maryland’s running game is still being heavily questioned entering the new season and it’ll be interesting to see how Locksley deploys his backs against a stout run defense. Redshirt senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis will likely lead the way, but West Virginia’s defense provides significant obstacles to Maryland’s running game. The Mountaineers held their opponents to just an average of 3.5 yards per carry last season.

2. Will we see an even better Taulia Tagovailoa on the field? The junior quarterback is entering his second season in Maryland’s offense and is expected to take a step forward in 2021. He has been named to countless watch lists for the nation’s array of collegiate quarterbacks after throwing for 1,011 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in just four games a season ago. The main storyline behind Tagovailoa is his decision-making. If we see an improved Tagovailoa leading the Terps’ passing offense against the Mountaineers, it could spell future success for Maryland as a whole.

“They’re a very great defense... we watch a lot of film on them and they’re very aggressive to the ball... I think for me to be successful [I] just gotta stick with the game plan, takes what the defense gives me and just stay disciplined,” Tagovailoa said.

3. Can Maryland avoid a repeat disaster in the opening game of the schedule? Maryland faced Northwestern in its season opener back in 2020, and to say it didn't go well for the Terps would be an understatement. Maryland suffered a 43-3 loss against a talented Northwestern squad, and now the Terps have another challenging regular-season opener in 2021 as well. West Virginia is already receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll and offers a tough matchup for Maryland in Week 1. The Terps will hope for a better regular-season opener against the Mountaineers on September 4.

Predictions

Vegas: West Virginia -2.5

My score prediction: Maryland 24, West Virginia 28