Guest Post by Patrick Guthrie

Why this is a tougher game than Week 1:

In the five years I was at Maryland, the third week of the season was not exactly a banner one for the football team. Maryland played West Virginia during three of those years, and they were blown out by a combined score of 107-45 in those three games. We’ve all seen this movie before, and plenty of us walked out of the theater. The question is, with both teams employing completely different staffs and philosophies; can Maryland make some rewrites to the script?

It won’t be easy. The #18 Mountaineers are a legitimate top 25 team with a dynamic offense lead by the best QB in the Big East. Although there was significant turnover on the defense from last year, there are still some exceptional pieces left from the unit that was one of the top 5 in the country a year ago. Dana Holgorsen is a brilliant offensive mind whose resume reads like a who’s who of explosive offenses (Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State).

All things considered, Geno Smith will be the best quarterback Maryland faces this entire season. He’s an efficient, accurate thrower, big enough that he’s difficult to bring down, and he didn’t particularly seem particularly vexed by the Maryland defense last year. As a sophomore, his 64.8 completion percentage was almost a full 8 points higher than Danny O’Brien’s. It was also better than Christian Ponder, Matt Barkley, and Ryan Mallett. He was only intercepted 7 times on his way to throwing 24 touchdowns. Quite simply, when Geno Smith was on the field, he routinely got the better of the defense rather than the other way around.

The spread offense installed by Dana Holgorsen means that a true #1 receiver isn’t a necessity, but junior Baltimore native Tavon Austin is widely regarded as the offense’s most dangerous playmaker. He reminds me a lot of Jacoby Ford, in that he’s a little guy (5’9”), but in open space he can burn just about everyone on this defense.

Arguably his biggest game came against Maryland last year with 7 catches for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was deployed mainly as a receiver, most effectively on crossing routes where he had time to lose his defender and work in the open field.  Stedman Bailey and Devon Brown are two more undersized but fast receivers, while Ivan McCartney’s 6’3” frame has made him a favorite target of Smith’s in the red zone (1 TD in each game so far this year). Overall, the secondary will have their hands full this week chasing these water bug receivers all over the field. They’re not going to turn into a phenomenal secondary overnight, so a lot will be on the defensive line and linebackers to pressure Geno Smith into early throws and hopefully mistakes.

What could present the biggest challenge for Maryland will be trying to keep Danny O’Brien upright. Pass-rushing specialist Bruce Irvin terrorized the Terrapins last year to the tune of 3 sacks, on his way to 14. Meanwhile on the other edge, Julian Miller provided 9 sacks of his own to make Irvin and Miller the most prolific pass-rushing teammates on any team in 2010. Maryland didn’t allow a sack against Miami, and even though the Canes were shorthanded, that’s still quite an accomplishment.

If they don’t allow a sack this week, the offensive line will have played exceptional, and Maryland should be in a position to win this game. Although it appears Crowton favors short drops and quick routes in his system, he will need to respect West Virginia’s significant presence on the edge when he does choose to have O’Brien drop deep to look for his targets.

Why Maryland can win this game:

With all of the talent West Virginia has, there are still several noticeable chinks in their armor. The most relevant of which this year has been their offensive impotence in first quarters. In two games against unimpressive competition, they’ve scored a total of 3 points in the 1st quarter combined. Particularly against Norfolk State, where they went three and out on their first three possessions, West Virginia has shown an inability to quickly find an offensive rhythm.

Although the issue has yet to rear its head this year, West Virginia had major issues protecting the football in 2010. Their 20 fumbles lost last year tied for the most in the country, including four coming against Randy Edsall’s UConn Huskies. The primary culprit was Smith, who fumbled 8 times last year resulting in 7 turnovers.  Smith hasn’t put it on the ground this year, but he also has yet to face an even somewhat respectable defense. Maryland isn’t exactly the LSU of the east, but they do have athletes capable of getting past a WVU line that allowed 27 sacks last year, and has already allowed a sack each to Marshall and Nicholls State.
As explosive as the passing game has been in Morgantown, on the ground the Mountaineers have been almost completely toothless. Their rushing attack has ranged from weak (33 carries, 102 yards vs. Nicholls St.) to non-existent (26 carries, 42 yards vs. Marshall). Because this team apparently doesn’t have a capable feature back on the roster, it is extremely one-dimensional. Todd Bradford should be able to design a defensive game plan predicated almost solely on stopping the pass instead of having to worry about a Lamar Miller-like threat on the ground.

Lastly, this new Maryland spread attack will be the first major test for a secondary that was forced to replace a wealth of talent from 2010. Keith Tandy is an exceptional cornerback, but the only other returning starter in the 3-3-5 unit is hard-hitting safety Terence Garvin. Even without Ray-Ray Armstrong, it’s arguable that Miami’s secondary was more talented than what Maryland will face this weekend.

Four adjustments Maryland should make to win this game:

  1. Kenny Tate should be emphasizing the S in STAR this week. After a mostly inconsequential performance against Miami, hopefully Maryland lets Tate play his most effective position on the field a few more times. This would appear to be the week to do it, considering the need for run support isn’t pressing. Maybe more nickel and other sub packages will see Tate roaming the secondary.
  2. There needs to be pressure on the quarterback, by any means necessary. Stephen Morris had an eternity to go through his progressions in Week 1, and if the same time is allotted to Geno Smith, he will pick the defense apart like he did last year. However, his fumbling issues added provide evidence that if the Terps can get to him, it could produce a game-swinging turnover.
  3. The running game doesn’t necessarily need to have a big day, but a few big plays would go a long way. Irvin is an extremely adept pass rusher, but he’s undersized, and at times can abandon his run responsibilities while trying to get a sack. A few effectively timed draws to Meggett or Pickett could yield expansive yardage if Irvin is too single-minded in his goal of getting to the QB.
  4. A quietly major issue that the team had against Miami was poor coverage on kickoffs. Tavon Austin returns kicks for West Virginia, and is averaging a ridiculous 48 yards per return in 2011, while cashing one in for a touchdown against Marshall. Mistake-free football also entails limiting the big play in every facet of the game. There’s enough offense on this team as is, so letting West Virginia start every series on their own 40 would more than likely be disastrous.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Maryland will need a few things to go their way to win this game. But as I showed above, West Virginia is guilty of letting much less talented teams hang around due to their fumbling issues, and early trouble diagnosing opponents’ initial defensive strategy. The gap in talent is not wide between WVU and UMD, so if they make key mistakes, this game will swing in Maryland’s favor. The Terps are going to need to provide multiple looks in the first quarter for Geno Smith, and most importantly wrap up to limit damage after the catch.

I had Maryland losing one of their first two games, mainly because I’ve seen them get waxed by West Virginia so many times. This game rests heavily on Todd Bradford drawing up a solid defensive game plan to keep West Virginia in check, which worries me a lot. If they keep WVU under 24 points, this is a Maryland win, if not they will be 1-1 going into the Temple game.

Patrick Guthrie is a contributor to and University of Maryland alumnus.  You can read his thoughts on all things sports on his personal blog “Two Years Too Late.”