September 17, 2013

Terps prepare for WVU, downplay rivalry

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- There was a lot of "just another game" talk Tuesday at the Gossett Team House, but even if you're willing to buy that - and you shouldn't be - there is already creeping talk of what a win Saturday against border rival West Virginia means.

The 3-0 Terrapins host the 2-1 Mountaineers at 3:30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, and a big, raucous crowd is expected in the plush 71,008-seat football cathedral.

"It's a big game for us," said Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown. "We get to play in an NFL Stadium against another good team. In the past it's been a pretty big rivalry, but from my point of view, it's just another game, an opportunity to go 4-0, and get another win."

It's another great head-fake from the nimble quarterback, who, as always, was loose and relaxed on Tuesday with microphones, TV cameras and reporters' notepads shoved in his face. Brown was executing the first part of coach Randy Edsall's game plan to keep a lid on pregame hype and keep the Terrapins, who, in all honesty, haven't had that many truly big games lately, focused on the task at hand.

And that task is to beat those Mountaineers for the first time in eight meetings or since 2003, when Maryland laid a 41-7 hurting on WVU. Since then, it's been all uphill against the Mountaineers, who have gone on to a more national pigskin profile. While couches have burned in Morgantown, the only hot seat in Byrd Stadium has been for head coaches in trying to turn things back around.

Not that you'll get much Maryland comment this year on what was once a stirringly emotional rivalry. Asked about what he had learned about the 'Neers and the border war, Edsall had more moves than Stefon Diggs in the open field.

"That's a bordering state of Maryland," he deadpanned. "They have tremendous fan support. They have a very good team. They're always well-coached, very athletic, and again when you play West Virginia you better have it buckled up pretty tight because they're going to get after you."

The unspoken text from the Terps Tuesday was simply that it's about time Maryland got after the Mountaineers. They played them tough last year before succumbing 31-21 in Morgantown, and they fell 37-31 in College Park in 2011, when a late Danny O'Brien interception sealed another WVU victory.

Before those two games under Edsall, the last four losses to West Virginia had all been by 12 or more points, and whether it was Steve Slaton or Tavon Austin or Geno Smith or Pat White, there was also some Mountaineer making big plays to put Maryland in an early hole.

Now West Virginia is searching for a few answers in coach Dana Holgorsen's spread attack. Last week, true freshman quarterback Ford Childress got his first start and tossed 359 yards and three scores in a 41-7 rout of Georgia State. A week earlier, though, No. 16 Oklahoma held the Mountaineers to just a touchdown in a 16-7 Sooners' win, and the 'Neers nearly blew their opener before besting FCS foe William & Mary, 24-17.

None of the Terps were talking revenge Tuesday, though lots of Maryland mavens are thinking that way. They're also thinking 4-0, and the Terrapins easing back into the national football consciousness on the eve of ACC play (starting after a bye week at Florida State on Oct. 5).

The Terrapins certainly aren't looking that far ahead. Edsall even stressed how he's keeping them focused on Tuesday practice Tuesday, and Wednesday practice Wednesday, and, well, you get the idea.

"As a football coach every game is hard to win," Edsall explained. "Just take a look at what has happened in college football through the first three weeks. Look at Akron and Michigan last week. Every team we play is the best team we're going to be playing that week. We have to always approach it that way in my opinion because if we don't you can get surprised. I just know that West Virginia is a really good team. We're going to have to play really, really well in order to win."

Maryland junior center Sal Conaboy, who was recruited by WVU out of Clarks Summit, Pa., was rattling off some of the same Edsall speak about the Mountaineers before being pressed for more.

"I always get excited about West Virginia," he finally admitted. "It's an exciting game, it's always a good game, but what I'm really excited about is going 4-0. I think that's the main thing for us."

Conaboy will be going against a three-man front wall that morphs into a five-man front on occasion, and has been particularly adept at stopping the pass this season. He said adaptability is the key.

"We want to be ready for everything they do, every situation," he said. "It's a little bit different than what we've been seeing but nothing that we haven't practiced against, and similar to what our defense runs."

The offensive line was a major worry headed into the season, but so far, so good. Maryland is averaging 262.2 yards per game on the ground and 292.3 through the air. They've put up 40.7 points through the first three weeks, but there's no doubt this will be their biggest test defensively.

"I think our offensive line is getting better with each week," Edsall said. "I like the fact that we haven't had any injuries there because I think that group needs as much work as they can get together all the time because of the complexity and the issues that they have to confront."

The Mountaineers can do more things defensively (with more speed and talent) than previous foes this season, and that should make this matchup a good one. Fans of both squads will know more about both teams after this game.

One key could be third down situations for the offense. Maryland had trouble there last week at UConn (converting just 4-of-15, and going 0-for-2 on fourth down), and the Mountaineers are 23rd in the nation, allowing opponents just a 30 percent conversion rate.

A couple of turnovers and that inability to finish off drives probably kept the Terrapins from putting the Huskies away before the half. Brown, ever the optimist, now looks back and thinks the Terrapins will gain from that experience heading away from Byrd Stadium for the second straight week.

"The biggest thing was that we didn't get rattled as a team," he said of the UConn win. "It was our first game on the road. There were a lot of first-timers out there, their first game away from Byrd. To have a little adversity and to bounce back, especially on offense with the turnovers and not executing like we had been, was huge."

The WVU secondary has been stellar so far this season, but they haven't really seen anything like what the Terrapins can do with Stefon Diggs on one side and Deon Long on the other. No team so far has been able to contain both wild-and-wonderful wideouts, and there's a feeling if anyone comes close it's about time for tight end Dave Stinebaugh to have a big week.

With Nigel King out with an injury, redshirt freshman Malcolm Culmer moves into the third wide receiver spot, backed by true freshman Taivon Jacobs. Edsall voiced confidence in both.

Injuries are actually much more of a factor on the other side of the ball where the shoulder injury to senior Dexter McDougle has now taken away both Terrapin cornerbacks. Isaac Goins had already moved in for Jeremiah Johnson on one side, and now rookie phenom Will Likely steps in for McDougle on the other side.

Likely, the 5-7, 175-pound wunderkind, has already made a name for himself with his often-spectacular play as a true freshman. He had 11 tackles against Old Dominion on special teams and as a reserve defender, and last week, he nearly broke a kickoff for a score, going 48 yards.

"He plays like he's a seasoned veteran," said Edsall. "It's not a surprise how he's playing because that's how he practices."

Likely is backed by another true freshman, Jarrett Ross, and Goins has sophomore Alvin Hill in reserve. There aren't any more scholarship cornerbacks available, though sophomore safety A.J. Hendy could play there in a pinch. The cornerback conundrum hasn't reached the scale of last year's quarterback quandary so Shawn Petty is still listed at inside linebacker.

The injuries in the secondary are a primary concern, though, playing against a team like West Virginia.

"They're going to spread us out and try to force us to play in space," explained linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil. "They're a tempo offense with a great offensive line, trying to figure out which quarterback to use. They have athletic receivers and the offense is high tempo. I think we have a front seven that can get after the quarterback and any time we can make the quarterback think about the pass rush, I think that's a good thing."

The pass rush has been a very good thing for Maryland so far. The Terrapins' 14 quarterback sacks or 4.67 traps per game leads the nation in the latest statistics. Outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield has 5.5 sacks on his own (three last week at UConn) and he's the national individual leader.

Cudjoe-Virgil has three sacks, and end Andre Monroe, 2.5.

How has that pass rush been so successful?

"(Line) coach (Greg) Gattuso is a great coach and he's taught us a lot of fundamentals and techniques," said Cudjoe-Virgil. "We spent a lot of time in practice working on it, and I think listening to him has helped us this year."

Cudjoe-Virgil said the Terps' pass-rushers take a lot of pride in winning their one-on-one matchups, another cornerstone of Edsall's basic football tenets. The confidence the players have gained through three victories permeates the squad, and hopefully into that reshaped secondary, which will rely on the pass rush more than ever.

"We just rely on the next person to come in and do the job," said Whitfield. "That's been our approach all along. A team is always going to have injuries and you have to be prepared."

Whitfield could have a hand in making life easier for that secondary if he can get to Childress at the rate he has been all season. Look for the Terrapin defense to blitz and change looks when possible against the WVU hurry-up and the redshirt freshman quarterback.

Playing such a fast offensive scheme isn't as daunting when you see it every day in practice, and Maryland's defense has been exceptional so far in pressuring passers. Whitfield said he understands why.

"The defensive scheme - everybody knows what everybody else is doing - and the chemistry," said Whitfield of the answer. "I've been working with my teammates to know where they're going to be and how much time we have to get the quarterback. Of course, I've also worked on my technique and in the weight room to get bigger and stronger."

WVU's offensive line has allowed five sacks so far and they've done some shuffling up front, too, particularly after the lackluster showing against Oklahoma offensively. As is usual, the plan calls for the Terrapins to take away the running game, make the Mountaineers one dimensional and then try to crash their Ford (Childress at quarterback).

Maryland might have an edge on both sides of the ball this time around, and they've even got the scariest playmaker in Diggs. Does it all add up to the end of the Mountaineers' streak and a 4-0 record for Maryland?

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