Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning provides periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. Be sure to follow Jed on Twitter @TheSignalCaller
From a Mountaineer perspective, the matchup with the Terrapins is the Farmer’s Almanac of football games, the Groundhog Day of regional rivalries. It’s that very telling time of year when the West Virginia University football program licks its finger, sticks it to the wind and forecasts its fortunes for the remainder of the season.
Think of your favorite WVU gridiron moment. Chances are it didn’t happen without the Mountaineers first beating Maryland.
Before squaring off against Notre Dame in the national championship in January 1989, West Virginia shredded Maryland 55-24 in an early season tilt in Morgantown, rallying from an early 14-0 deficit. Before pulling off a miracle at Boston College to wrap up a perfect regular season in 1993, the Mountaineers had to outgun the Terps in a 42-37 September shootout. Before stunning the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2006 Sugar Bowl West Virginia ran roughshod in College Park, 31-19, for a pivotal win. Before ambushing Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl the Mountaineers first blasted the Terrapins, 31-14. Before bombing Clemson in the Orange Bowl the Mountaineers had to survive a furious Maryland comeback bid at Byrd Stadium in 2011 to win 37-34.
On the other side of the coin, the most forgettable West Virginia seasons in recent history (4-7 in 1990; 3-8 in 2001 and 4-8 in 2013) have been replete with losses to the Terps.
For WVU, the trend has been unequivocal: beat the Terrapins and greater things are frequently on the horizon; lose to Maryland and you’re often left to pick up the pieces. Despite the ghouls and goblins that start to surface in store fronts about the time these two programs typically square off, the results have little to do with black magic or witchcraft. Instead, it’s a simple matter of logic.
With 11 conference titles, 25 bowl appearances, 15 NFL first-round draft picks and six players and four coaches inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Maryland has always been a worthy litmus test for West Virginia. Generally speaking, when the Mountaineers have been good enough to beat a team like the Terps – particularly with the extra spice of the border rivalry heating things up another notch or two – they’ve also been good enough to beat a few other guys too.
With eight wins in its last nine tries against Maryland, WVU has enjoyed one of the most dominating stretches in the history of the series. For that to continue there are a lot of boxes the Mountaineers will need to check off Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m.
1) THE TRANSITION DOWNS
A lot of things went wrong for Randy Edsall’s squad two weeks ago in a 48-27 meltdown against Bowling Green but an inability to move the chains (3-for-13 on third down and 0-for-1 on fourth down) led to the Terps’ defense spending 38 minutes on the field. It wasn’t the time that hurt Maryland as much the excessive opportunities given to the Falcons. Bowling Green enjoyed no fewer than 16 offensive possessions, including a staggering total of 10 in the final two quarters. That helped set the stage for 42 second-half BGSU points in a game that saw the Terrapins lose control in a major way down the stretch.
With some shake ups to the offense, including a new starting quarterback in Caleb Rowe, the Terps showed marked improvement in last week’s 35-17 win over USF. Maryland struck perfect balance offensively -- running it 34 times and throwing it 34 times -- and stayed ahead of the chains, converting 53 percent of its combined third/fourth down tries. The biggest beneficiary of this newfound offensive efficiency was a Terrapins’ defense that faced 33 fewer snaps against the Bulls than it had a week earlier in the loss to BGSU.
The good news for Mountaineer fans? No defense in the Big 12 has been more effective at slamming the door on transition downs than West Virginia, allowing opponents to convert just 24.2 percent of their tries on third/fourth down combined – the lowest such figure in the conference. One of the most overlooked nuggets that helped WVU escape Byrd Stadium with a win last year was the fact that the Mountaineer defense stopped the Terps on their final 10 third-down attempts in that 40-37 decision. It might take a similar effort from Tony Gibson’s unit this time around.
2) THE TURNOVER GAME
It’s Football 101, right? The fact that you know enough about the game to visit this website means I’m probably preaching to the choir when I stress the importance of ball security. That being said, turnover margin seems somehow even more significant when West Virginia and Maryland square off – and that cuts both ways. The eight times WVU has beaten the Terps in its last nine tries, the Mountaineers have turned the ball over a total of 12 times (1.5 per game). Conversely, in the one loss during that span, the 37-0 setback two years ago in Baltimore, six WVU turnovers played a key role in that outcome.
On the other side of the football, despite coming up empty against Liberty last week the Mountaineer defense already has five takeaways. That’s a drastic improvement over a year ago when West Virginia didn’t force its fifth turnover until the eighth game of the year – an October 25 win at Oklahoma State. The opportunity to build on that total might present itself Saturday against a Terrapins offense that has turned the football over eight times, including seven interceptions – the most in the country. With four touchdown passes and three picks in just 33 attempts this season, one thing is certain about Maryland signal caller Caleb Rowe . . . The guy throws a very catchable ball.
3) SACK FACTS
It’s been said that football is a simple game that often boils down to little more than making life easy for your quarterback and difficult for their’s. That’s what makes Maryland an especially tricky sparring partner. Not only do the Terps feature a veteran offensive line that hasn’t allowed a single sack in three games but new coordinator Keith Dudzinksi is the architect of a Maryland defense that has already taken down opposing quarterbacks 14 times this season – second most in the country behind Texas A&M’s 15.
As you would expect from an even-front defense, the majority of the Terrapins sacks (13 of their 14) have been made by defensive linemen, including a team-high 4.5 by junior Yannick Ngakoue. The former walk-on combines a big-league burst with a blue-collar motor to present nightmares for opposing offenses. Throw in the game tape and you’ll see Ngakoue wreak havoc in the loss to Bowling Green, registering three sacks and three tackles for loss while overwhelming 6-5, 319-pound Falcons tackle Jacob Bennett -- a solid, veteran football player who garnered preseason All-MAC recognition. Keep an eye on the matchup between Ngakoue and promising young West Virginia tackle Yodny Cajuste
. Maryland’s talented front four poses an exceptional challenge and provides a good taste of what the Mountaineers will see when they start Big 12 Conference play.
Terps QB Caleb Rowe, meanwhile, doesn’t hang on to the football for long. He makes very fast decisions (the good ones and the not-so-good ones) and he’s blessed with a compact delivery, a quick release and just enough athleticism to escape a messy pocket. All of these factors contribute to the difficulty defenses have encountered in trying to get all the way home to hit him. Watch the 70-yard touchdown bullet Rowe fired to Taivon Jacobs on third and long last week against USF. With a glance downfield Rowe was quickly satisfied that the safety couldn’t get over top to help defend against the outside release vertical being run by Jacobs and even more quickly he shuffled half a step and launched a perfect strike down the sidelines for the score. No indecision and no wasted motion.
And finally . . .
4) THE RED ZONE APOCALYPSE MIGHT NOT BE UPON US JUST YET
It’s become the Bird Flu story of the 2015 West Virginia football season. You might have heard about it at some point in recent weeks from a thousand sources. Through two games the Mountaineers have struggled to turn red-zone trips into touchdowns.
We saw it against Georgia Southern. We saw it again against Liberty. In fact, WVU ranks 86th in the country in this category.
It’s mayhem! It’s chaos! The sky will soon fall and the rivers will soon run dry!
Except they won’t.
Let’s pump the brakes on the hysteria. Red-zone production has been an issue, no doubt – one that Dana Holgorsen wants to overcome. But two games doesn’t quite constitute a full blown epidemic.
If it helps, I’ve brewed a pot of chicken soup for the red zone soul and I’m here to serve up a hot bowl for troubled Mountaineer fans everywhere.
For starters, the sample size we’re working with is merely 13 red zone possessions. With a number that small things can turn on a dime. Overall, West Virginia has scored on 92 percent (12 of 13) of its trips inside the 20-yard line – including seven touchdowns and six field goals. That, you see, is the flawed if not misleading formula the NCAA utilizes to capture red zone efficiency. Either way, that rate places WVU at No. 27 in the country in this category – significantly higher than Associated Press Top 15 teams like Florida State (38), Baylor (42), Oregon (47), Oklahoma (50), Georgia (55) and Alabama (62).
As you’ve probably heard by now, though, it’s not the scoring rate in the red zone that’s hurt the Mountaineers. It’s their touchdown rate (54 percent). As such, let’s pop the hood and take a closer look at that as well.
In the first 30 minutes of its first two games, West Virginia scored just one touchdown in seven trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. In the second half it’s been a much different story. In fact, in the third and fourth quarters of the wins over Georgia Southern and Liberty, the Mountaineers reached the end zone on all six of their trips into the red zone. That’s progress and it’s a very real and tangible result of good coaching.
Last month, in this same cozy corner of the Internet, I chronicled West Virginia’s struggles in the red zone during the 2014 season (Hot Reads: Red Zone Blues, August 11) while detailing the keys to a productive red-zone offense and giving examples of what good looks like. A touchdown percentage in the low 60s gets you in the conversation, but the truly exceptional teams hit that number and keep on soaring. Dana Holgorsen’s Orange Bowl team, for instance, hit 67 percent; the 2005 Mountaineer squad that won the Sugar Bowl hit 71 percent and the 2007 WVU team that upended Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl reached the end zone on 75 percent of its red-zone trips.
The tools are in place for the 2015 Mountaineer offense to put up similar numbers. They’ve shown flashes of being on the cusp of something great.
Through two games, only three teams had reached the red zone more than West Virginia’s 13 trips but no team in the nation had run more plays in the red zone at that point than the 41 the Mountaineers ran. To put that in perspective, 29 percent of WVU’s 143 overall offensive snaps have taken place inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. When you set up camp in that part of the field that often, you’re giving yourself a chance to win a lot of football games.
After breaking down all 41 of those snaps, I’m convinced the Mountaineers are close to being a very good red-zone offense. Sure, there have been mistakes by young players in key spots, but those mistakes are all correctable. I’ve seen raw receivers run routes at angles that were oh-so-close to springing them open in the end zone. I’ve seen dropped balls and throws that were a whisker off the mark, either because a defender’s hand was in the passer’s face or because the ball was delivered with too much velocity. I’ve seen easy touchdown runs left on the table because of indecisive zone-read execution.
What I haven’t seen is a lack of effort. For a West Virginia offense that’s been led this year by a quarterback making just his third and fourth career starts and has featured three redshirt-sophomores, a redshirt-freshman and a true freshman, I’m confident that the best of what we’ll see from this crew – in the red zone and otherwise – is still ahead.
In the meantime, the Mountaineers will keep their noses to the grindstone and work to improve on that red-zone touchdown rate that ranks No. 86 in the country.
After all, it could be worse. They could be ranked No. 93 in that category.
I’ll see you at the 50.