The bitter taste that last year's 37-0 loss to the Maryland Terrapins left was tough to shake. Some would argue that the palette was never fully cleansed as WVU would go on to win only two games the rest of the season. 357 days later the Mountaineers get another crack at the Terps and after staring at a 37-0 poster in the weight room for months, they would like nothing better than to show the nation that a promising start in the first two games is for real.
Last week I did something a little different and laid out five points I thought were important to look for from WVU in the game. I'm going to do something similar here but we'll be talking about the Terps a lot more than we did the Tigers. Let's get rolling....
1) Red Zone
This was #1 last week and it's #1 this week and I'd sure like for it to not be #1 next week. For all the good feelings from the Towson win, WVU was still spotty when they got into scoring position. On their first 3 drives they made it into the red zone with diminishing results - touchdown, field goal, missed field goal. The righted the ship to score TDs on the next 5 possessions, but the results were still cause for worry.
The good news is the Mountaineers have found the red zone frequently. They've had 22 possessions in the first 2 games of the year and found the red zone on 14 of those, which is 2 out of every 3 possessions. Not too shabby. Unfortunately those trips have been plagued by drops, poor passes and turnovers, resulting in only 8 touchdowns. For a Maryland defense that's been pretty stingy, allowing only 24 total points in a pair of games, scoring opportunities will be at a premium and the Mountaineers need to be kicking extra points, not field goals.
But you know what would make those entire preceding two paragraphs a moot point?
2) Big Plays
Sometimes, after my pregnant wife has fallen asleep at 8:30 and I'm trying to stay awake while watching Thursday night B1G football, I like to scan cfbstats.com. And sometimes I find some interesting things. WVU ranks 7th nationally in plays of 10 or more yards with 42. Then they rank 52nd nationally in plays of 20 or more yards with 9. I'm guessing you see where this is going - the Mountaineers rank dead last from there on out, having hit for just a single play over 30 yards (one of only 12 teams nationwide with that distinction) and no plays from 40 or more (one of only 17 teams sporting that goose egg).
So they're effective getting yardage in 10 yard chunks, but not much more than that plays. High-powered offenses like Dana Holgorsen's historically make their money breaking big plays. Even with all their struggles, WVU managed a 23rd ranking nationally for plays of 30 or more yards last year. They've had some close calls and Holgorsen has even taken to chiding Kevin White for his inability to get to the end zone, joking in the post-Towson press conference that ""I'm tired of him getting tackled inside the 10. ... I don't think he likes to score touchdowns." Somehow WVU needs to find a way to break some big plays. Mario Alford stands out as the surest way to get to the end zone in the least amount of time and last week's game against Towson was only the second time in his last 5 contests that he hadn't scored on a play of at least 72 yards (I'm counting the kick return against Alabama).
This game is all about West Virginia finding out how good they might be and a huge part of taking that next step is breaking some big ones.
Last year the Mountaineer defense famously created a small pile of turnovers (28) that was offset by an offense that created even more of their own (32). So far this season they've been much more careful with the ball, turning it over just a single time - William Crest's fumble against Towson in garbage time. Unfortunately they've only gained a single turnover - Daryl Worley's interception against Alabama.
Now certainly we all know that Maryland turned it over 6 times last week in their win at South Florida...is that indicative of a larger trend? Jed Drenning tackled that very thing via Twitter on Thursday night:
Were 6 turnovers at USF by Terps O a fluke? Maybe not. Despite 6 takeaways vs WVU last yr, Terps finished 102nd in TO margin; 104th in 2012.— Jed Drenning (@TheSignalCaller) September 11, 2014
Yes Maryland was plus-4 in turnovers in win over WVU last year...but since start of 2012 the Terps are minus-21 overall in turnover margin.— Jed Drenning (@TheSignalCaller) September 11, 2014
Digging down deeper...the Terps have turned the ball over 70 times in their last 28 games. So, no. The 6 vs. USF might not be an aberration.— Jed Drenning (@TheSignalCaller) September 11, 2014
I found that interesting. So I decided to take what Jed did a step further and check on the turnover history of Randy Edsall's last 6 teams, but concentrate only on how many times they turned the ball over, not net margin. I wanted to know about his ball security. What follows is a list of total team turnovers and their national rank:
2013 Maryland 28 TO 110th
2012 Maryland 30 TO 110th
2011 Maryland 23 TO 62nd
2010 UConn 19 TO 31st
2009 UConn 22 TO 52nd
2008 UConn 29 TO 100th
Certainly not a stellar record at protecting the ball. And as Dana Holgorsen let us know, they have a lot of the same players they had last year and we have a lot of the same players we had last year, so that just makes these trends even more meaningful. Last year the Mountaineers set up 21 Terrapin points with turnovers. Sure would be nice if Edsall's squad returned the favor - they're certainly equipped to do it.
4) The Maryland Blitz
If there's one thing that characterizes a turtle, it's his aggressive nature. That was on full display in 2012 as the Terps pinned their ears back (do turtles have ears?) and fearlessly brought the heat to Geno Smith. Smith made them pay for the cover zero with TD tosses to Tavon Austin of 24, 34 and 44 yards, but the Terps also gave WVU plenty of fits, holding what had been a historically prolific offense to just those 3 touchdowns. "If they blitzed Geno freaking Smith they'll certainly blitz Ford Childress in his second start," we thought, but not so. Childress suffered an early torn pectoral muscle that severely limited his range and the running game never found purchase and as a result the Terps rushed 3 and hung back to clog the lanes.
So what will we see this year? The smart money would be on the heat. Clint Trickett has done a masterful job in these first two games of getting rid of the ball fast and flashing JUST enough elusiveness to stay out of harm's way, but in Maryland he could be facing his toughest test - yes, even more than Alabama. The Tide had the talent on the back side to pick their spots for a rush, but the Terps have to know their best chance is to force mistakes. Can Clint make them pay and find a slanting Mario Alford across the middle? Will Kevin White make Maryland pay for sending a single unworthy human at him? Upon the answer to those questions could rest the outcome of the game.
5) The Fire
The play of last year's Mountaineer squad possessed a sloppiness and laziness that made the entire affair a burden to watch. There just wasn't a point at which you felt they could win, but what's worse is there wasn't a point at which you thought THEY felt they could win. That can't happen on Saturday and it doesn't sound like it will. Reports came out this week that a sheet of paper with last season's score has been up on the weight room wall, a constant reminder of of what happened. In addition I was listening to the postgame show last week and Jed said Coach Holgorsen asked a single question at the end of his locker room postgame remarks to the team - "y'all know who we play next week don't ya?" It was met with a resounding roar.
The greatest Mountaineers teams have always been able to tap into that special place that gives them an added edge. Call it a chip on the shoulder, call it "nobody outside of this locker room believes in us," call it whatever you want, but it's that special something that makes you push a little harder than the guy across from you. One of the shortcomings of the Holgorsen era thus far in my eyes is that he hasn't been able to take his squads to that place often enough. Well, they sound like they might be there this week and if so it might be what it takes to push them past the Terps.
The rivalry with the Terrapins hit a lull characterized by Mountaineer dominance for a few years but it's back in full force as the lone remaining border battle. Last year the Mountaineers showed how bad they could be, perhaps this year we'll get the first real look at how good we think they are.