West Virginia’s trip to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore to face Maryland has the makings of a very interesting football game, and not just because of some of the crazy uniform combinations the Terps can pull out of the equipment truck on Saturday afternoon.
No. 1, Maryland is a much, much better football team than the two most recent versions the Mountaineers saw in 2011 and 2012. The Terps are off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2001 when Ralph Friedgen led Maryland to a 10-2 record and an Orange Bowl appearance, with relatively easy victories this year over Florida International, Old Dominion and UConn.
No. 2, it appears wide receiver Stefon Diggs is going to be well worth the price of admission. In last year’s game, the nation’s top wide receiver recruit two years ago burned West Virginia’s secondary for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He finished 2012 with 54 catches for 848 yards and six touchdowns and is already well on his way to exceeding that total with 16 catches for 387 yards and three scores so far this season.
Teaming with Diggs is another outstanding receiver in junior Deon Long, a one-time WVU commitment who later cast his lot with New Mexico (where Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locklsey flamed out after just two seasons) before spending last year at Iowa Western. Long already shows 15 catches for 173 yards and one touchdown this season, which will keep West Virginia’s DBs from concentrating solely on Diggs.
“They’ve got big-play potential,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “This will be a different challenge for us and I’m excited to see how our guys react to it.”
“It kind of reminds me of Stedman (Bailey) and Tavon (Austin),” added West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “There are a lot of similarities in the way they use them; a lot of similarities in the way they try and get them the ball.”
Thirdly, Maryland finally has some stability at quarterback. It seems like just about every year the Terps are deep into their depth chart at quarterback when they face the Mountaineers, but this season Maryland has a seasoned and productive guy to lean on in senior C.J. Brown, who in three games this year has almost exceeded his junior season passing totals of 2011. Brown, who sat out last season with a knee injury, is completing 67.1 percent of his throws this year for 833 yards and six touchdowns heading into Saturday’s game.
“(Quarterback stability) is the biggest difference in their team,” admitted Patterson. “They’ve got two threats on the perimeter, they’ve got a good running game and a quarterback who can run it and throw it so I think that makes them feel a lot more established.”
On the ground, Maryland is averaging 262.3 yards per game to rank third in the ACC and 21st nationally. Sophomore Brandon Ross leads the Terps with 265 yards rushing, but right behind him is Brown with 257 yards and a team-best five scores. The quarterback ripped off a 64-yard run against Florida International in the opener and also has a 77-yarder to his credit against Georgia Tech in 2011.
West Virginia’s defensive coaches believe Maryland has the most balanced offensive attack they will have faced so far this year.
“They pose some challenges that we necessarily haven’t faced yet this year so it will be interesting to see how we handle that,” noted Patterson.
A fifth reason this game is interesting is because Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen know each other very well, and Stewart seemed to have a pretty good beat on what the Mountaineers were trying to do last year. West Virginia put 31 points on the board in a 10 point victory, but seven of those points came on a Doug Rigg fumble return for a touchdown. Meanwhile, WVU’s run game managed an anemic 25 yards on 25 attempts.
Remove three explosive scoring plays by Austin and the outcome of last year’s game might have been dramatically different.
This year, Stewart’s defense is giving up only 13.7 points per game to rank tied for 18th nationally. The Terps are also leading the country in sacks with an average of 4.67 per game.
“They’re going to pressure you,” said Holgorsen, who also pointed out that Maryland is going to be without its top two corners for this weekend’s game. “One of the things we didn’t do very well last week was identifying the zero blitz (man coverage without help and everyone else blitzing). We need enough time to get rid of the ball. (Georgia State) did it six times; got to us twice and hit us twice, and we did the right thing twice. That’s not good enough. Maryland will zero blitz us and pressure us and they might do it every single snap. If they do, we have to handle it.”
Finally, West Virginia quarterback Ford Childress will be making his first career road start in a pro stadium. Childress performed well in his college debut last week against Georgia State, completing 25-of-41 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns, but the stakes are much higher this week against a Maryland team that is seeking to snap West Virginia’s seven-game winning streak in the series.
On the plus side, Childress likely could have thrown for more than 450 yards against Georgia State if not for some drops by Mountaineer receivers. However, on the down side, Childress needs to pick up the pace of play in order for West Virginia’s offense to operate more effectively.
“He needs to improve his sense of urgency,” Holgorsen explained. “He’s night and day better right now than he was a year ago. That said his sense of urgency needs to pick up because the speed of the game is going to increase. Maryland has great team speed. He needs to make reads quicker and his footwork and release need to be quicker. That just comes with experience.”
Defensively, West Virginia played pretty well outside of a 65-yard touchdown run allowed on Georgia State’s first offensive possession of the second half. The Mountaineers have clearly tightened up their pass defense, allowing just 136.7 yards per game and two TD passes so far this season, but they have surrendered 554 yards on the ground, including an alarming 4.6 yards-per-carry average. The defense has also given up five runs of 26 yards or longer so far this season.
Combine that with Brown’s ability to get the ball down the field and West Virginia’s D will be under constant pressure Saturday afternoon.
“We haven’t faced a passing attack like this yet,” cautioned Holgorsen. “Do we feel better where we are defensively? Yes, absolutely. Do we have it all figured out? No. Maryland is going to bring some bigger challenges. They have the ability. Oklahoma State and Baylor - our next two opponents - are also going to have a lot of ability, so this will be the game where we see where we are at.”
Saturday’s game is scheduled to kick off at 3:30 p.m. and will be televised nationally on ESPNU (Anish Shroff and Kelly Stouffer).
The team plans to bus to Baltimore on Friday afternoon.
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