MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. You can read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller
Everyone reading this has a story about the first West Virginia game they ever attended.
Mine was on September 18th, 1982. Our entire little league football team packed into a cluster of vehicles, including 4-deep in my dad’s ’79 Chevy Blazer, for a group event that we had all been eagerly looking forward to ever since the tickets had been secured that summer. We made the early morning trip across the mountain to Morgantown giddy with anticipation but not knowing entirely what to expect.
It was the Saturday following West Virginia’s storied upset of the 9th ranked Oklahoma Sooners and the buzz surrounding Don Nehlen’s program was at a fever pitch. With the visiting Terrapins in town, we were treated to a Jeff Hostetler versus Boomer Esiason showdown – and the game didn’t disappoint.
Mountaineer Field was a different place in 1982, as evidenced by the fact that our entire travel party – twenty or so strong – was perched on the turf for the duration of the game just feet behind the goal post of the stadium’s south endzone. When Hoss connected with a diving Rich Hollins from 35 yards out to put West Virginia ahead early in the 4th quarter, Hollins was close enough to make it feel as if a few beads of sweat might have bounced off his brow onto my shoe. But not quite.
Later in the final quarter, Maryland responded in the opposite direction with a 16-play odyssey that spanned 75 yards. With just over a minute to play the Terps crashed into the endzone to cut the WVU lead to a single point. At ground level from the opposite end of the field all we could do was hope for the best as Maryland first year Coach Bobby Ross tossed the dice across the table with an attempted two-point conversion for the win. Under pressure from Darryl Talley and company, Esiason’s errant throw sent the Mountaineers to their third 2-0 start under Don Nehlen in as many years.
Fast forward three decades as Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers prepare to square off against Randy Edsall’s Terrapins on Saturday and we see that a lot of things have changed. But some similarities remain. Much like that 1982 contest, West Virginia heads into this game with a national ranking attached to its brand and is once again led by a strong-armed quarterback with an NFL future.
The biggest difference between now and then? Thirty years ago this was a hotly competitive series with bragging rights changing hands almost annually. That hasn’t been the case as of late, with West Virginia claiming the last six contests – the longest such streak in the history of the series - and eclipsing the 30-point barrier the last five times out. The Terps haven’t beaten the Mountaineers since the 2004 Gator Bowl, though it did take a late turnover to seal last year’s 37-31 WVU win at Byrd Stadium.
All things considered, it’s perhaps little wonder that WVU has reeled off half a dozen consecutive wins in the series. To put it simply: the Mountaineers have by and large been the better football team during that stretch. In point of fact, since Maryland trounced West Virginia in Jacksonville on Jan. 1, 2004 to claim their most recent victory in this border rivalry, WVU has ripped off an overall record of 80-24 while the Terps have stumbled to a mark of 48-53.
This year the odds makers have pegged the Mountaineers as 27-point favorites. That spread no doubt is in part because of the high velocity with which the West Virginia offense has operated through two games, and in part because Maryland has had the look of a team with the parking brake jammed on despite its 2-1 start.
Pop quiz. What do the names Ortiz, Coyer and Whitmer mean to you? No, it’s not a law firm in College Park. Those are the three quarterbacks the Terps have faced this season. William & Mary’s Raphael Ortiz, a sophomore whom against Maryland made his first career start, connected on just 44% of his throws for 100 yards in a 7-6; Temple’s Chris Coyer, a part-time starter on the 116th ranked passing offense in the country a year ago, completed just 39% of his attempts for 178 yards in the Owls’ 36-27 loss to the Terrapins; and UConn’s Chandler Whitmer, who threw five picks in his first two career starts this year before facing Maryland in start number three, managed a pedestrian 68 yards in the Huskies 24-21 win over the Terps last weekend.
In short, don’t read too much into Maryland’s gaudy defensive numbers. I’ve always maintained that statistics in the wrong hands are a very dangerous thing, and if you’re wondering how the Terps are ranked 6th in the nation against the pass this year – the preceding paragraph should provide you with an answer. Maryland will hustle and Maryland will hit you but their personnel doesn’t warrant consideration among the nation’s elite. If the West Virginia passing game is misfiring on Saturday, that will likely have more to do with internal miscues than with any external problems the Terrapins hope to present.
Terps’ first-year Defensive Coordinator Brian Stewart does serve as an interesting caveat. Stewart, a long-time NFL assistant, spent a pair of seasons (2010-11) running the defense on Kevin Sumlin’s staff at the University of Houston. Why is that of note? Because Sumlin famously maintained the offense that Dana Holgorsen had installed during his two years in Houston (2008-09) after Holgorsen departed for Oklahoma State in 2010. Translation? Stewart had an opportunity to face that offense every day in practice for two seasons. Might he have a potential trick or two up his sleeve as a result? Maybe, but only if he has managed to replicate the offense’s speed and tempo in a practice setting with a scout team executing plays off a cue card. That’s a tall order.
The Maryland offense, meanwhile, has suffered through its own set of early season tribulations. Through three games with true freshman Perry Hills at the helm, the Terps are 119th in the country in yards per contest. But that’s just the beginning of their offensive woes. The Terrapins have had 42 possessions this season, and 23 of those (55%) have resulted in either a three-and-out or a turnover. In fact, Maryland is tied with Arkansas and Houston for the most turnovers lost (10), while only 8 FBS teams have allowed more sacks per game than the Terps and only 7 teams have yielded more tackles for loss. For a West Virginia defense that hopes to earn a reputation in the Big 12 as a disruptive, ball hawking unit this opportunity against Maryland’s offense – ostensibly vulnerable in the perfect areas - could be nothing short of made to order.
Through two games the Mountaineers rank 4th in the nation and first in the Big 12 in Tackles for Loss – a key indicator of success in the highway robbery brand of defense the WVU staff hopes to see. Sacks and TFLs ultimately lead to takeaways. Pressure is, after all, the seed of all turnovers. This early in the year however, with such a small sample size to draw from, statistics like that are about as meaningful as Elvis Presley’s black belt.
The West Virginia defense has shown flashes of promise in previous weeks. Case in point, the ten TFLs and the Isaiah Bruce
touchdown against Marshall; the four sacks and the two goal line stands against JMU. WVU now needs to build on those moments and assert itself as a defense consistently capable of making those game changing plays. To that end, the Mountaineers will blitz the Terps’ freshman signal caller early and often to prevent him from settling into a rhythm. Terrapins Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley of course realizes as much. Maryland will counter with a game plan that figures to be top heavy with quick, single read throws coupled with an all out effort to establish a consistent enough running game to keep West Virginia guessing.
Maryland’s rushing attack was instrumental in making last year’s West Virginia win in College Park a close call, but the primary culprits in that game (Davin Meggett: 113 yards and a TD; D.J. Adams: 64 yards & 2 TDs) are both gone and the Terps have struggled to find adequate replacements. To give themselves – and Perry Hills – any kind of chance on Saturday, the Terrapins will have to do much better than the 2.7 yards per carry they’ve averaged so far this season. The return from injury of running back Brandon Ross could give Maryland’s ground-game-by-committee a much needed shot in the arm, but will that be enough?
My guess is “no.”
This has all the hallmarks of one team bringing a pocket knife to a sabre fight. It’s a rivalry game with heavy consequences for both sides – and it’s exactly the type of match-up Randy Edsall knows he needs a solid showing in to help liberate him from the hot seat. I’m not convinced Maryland will bow out as gently as some pundits suggest, but I’m also not convinced the Terps are equipped to keep pace – at least not without a lot of help from the Mountaineers themselves. With a strong core of veteran leadership at key positions and a hot-handed Heisman candidate pulling the trigger, West Virginia certainly doesn't appear to have the disposition of a team inclined to offer such help.
See you at the fifty.