Edsall, 9-18 at Maryland in two-plus years with an initial 2-10 season, has typically preferred the I- and Pro Set formations, with an emphasis on the running game. His Connecticut teams, not often the finest passing squads in the grind-it-out former Big East, usually held their own in rushing and rush defense. And that's what has separated his third Maryland team from the majority of the ones throughout his 15-year head coaching career. The Terrapins, via senior quarterback C.J. Brown and an NFL wideout in Stefon Diggs, have thrown their first three foes aside by doing just that.
The Terps show fantastic balance, averaging 262 yards rushing and 282 passing to rank 21st and 28th, respectively, in the NCAA. And with Brown, a 6-3, 210-pounder who completed 82 of 166 passes for 49.4 yards per game in 2011 before missing all of last season with a torn ACL, now fully healthy, UM seems to be finding its proverbial stride at just the right time. The senior has connected on 49 of 73 throws this season for 833 yards and six touchdowns against just one interception. He's also the team's second-leading rusher with 31 carries for 257 yards, and almost unheard of stat for an Edsall-coached squad. The team's leading ball carrier, Brandon Ross, has just 15 more carries for eight more yards, giving Brown a whopping 8.3 yards per carry compared to Ross' 5.8.
Some of those have been designed runs for the athletic signal caller. But as teams adjusted to double cover Diggs, and shade former WVU signee and fellow Terp wideout Deon Long, Brown has snuck out of any collapsing pockets and registered big gains, including a 64-yarder. Brown has scored five rushing touchdowns, and UM – 3-0 for the first time since 2001 – doesn't hesitate to utilize the run-pass option on sprint and rollouts, or the occasional bootleg with the tight end.
Those multi-option plays put pressure on outside linebackers, forcing them to split the difference or commit, leaving talented players open for gain or scores. Maryland has also stretched teams vertically, especially with Diggs, and got licks in on the ground as well. It's fair to note that Maryland hasn't faced much legit competition, pasting Florida International (43-10) and Old Dominion (47-10) before getting past UConn 32-21 in East Hartford last week. But one doesn't rack up the accolades and numerics of Diggs, who has 16 catches for a 24.2-yard average and three TDs, without having a blend of speed, solid hands and excellent body control.
The 6-0, 195-pounder shredded West Virginia as a freshman last season for 56- and 42-yard touchdowns, the longest one on a simple comeback route when multiple defenders missed tackles as Diggs cut to the sideline, then clear across the field for the score. Seven Mountaineer defenders had decent chances to make a play, and none, not one, ever laid even a finger on the wideout. The other was on a pattern along the sideline after a naked boot out of the I-formation in which WVU's corner came up to cover the fullback, and Diggs cut his pattern short of the safeties. Still, Diggs was 25 yards away from the end zone when he caught the pass, and still managed to score with just one block.
West Virginia is much more fundamentally sound this season, and those kinds of openings have yet to show themselves in new coordinator Keith Patterson's unit. But this is the most balanced and offensively capable team the Mountaineers have yet faced, and it reasons that Edsall will attempt to use largely the same game plan that has proven successful in the first three games. Expect some play action mixed in, a decent dose of midrange and downfield throws to Diggs and perhaps a more wide open look to Maryland's total offensive sets. The Terps aren't likely to try and bottle the game up, using the run and fretting over West Virginia's offense, as they have the previous two years. Instead, three wide sets will be common, with Diggs and Long, and perhaps a tight end with single backs which better spreads the field and gives Brown and Ross more seams for throwing and running.
Discipline is perhaps the biggest defensive challenge, aside from tackling, for the Mountaineers. West Virginia must correctly read its keys, leverage the ball well and limit cutback lanes. WVU should be able to at least control the run – and by that we mean actual running plays, not Brown scrambles – enough that its corners don't need to even consider rushing up in support. The first focus has to be on their own assignment (there's that discipline term again), and trying to slow the passing game enough to get UM behind the chains in down and distance. WVU has the talent and ability – with safety help over the top –to cover Diggs downfield without resorting to pure double teams the majority of the time. But they might shade a safety on occasion and must wrap tackle well and not allow added yardage in the open field.
Patterson mentioned he was disappointed with West Virginia's effort in the first half against Georgia State, and that he had to call a few more non-base blitz schemes than he would have liked. Clearly, WVU was trying to keep some things off film. One might imagine they might have shown much off what was available against Oklahoma, but the Sooners were such a poor passing team that the staff might not have felt the need for exotic pressure packages. Look for this to be the game, pending score and flow, that WVU uses whatever it's comfortable with in pressure and coverage packages. Again, the keys: Tackle. Disciplined, assignment football – keep track of your job, whether that's keeping QB or run game contain, getting pressure from certain angles, coverage, etc. Limit the run, force the pass, and get Maryland into uncomfortable downs and distances.
Offensively, the plan might be much the same. The Mountaineers cannot afford any turnovers, especially in their own end, as UM placekicker Brad Craddock has made seven of eight, including 2/2 from 30-49 yards, the lone miss coming from 50-plus. And the disciplined football here means no player can try to do more than that of which he is capable. Quarterback Ford Childress is the main applicable player – no forcing 50-50 balls into tight windows, no deep tosses into double coverage, like we saw versus GSU – but receivers don't need to be trying to turn a solid eight-yard completion into a 30-yard gain by cutting back, either. Take the bird in the hand against the potentials, especially with an inexperienced QB. Stay ahead of the chains, and don't kill drives with penalties.
Maryland's defense has allowed just 96.7 yards rushing per game. But, again, the Terrapins haven't played anybody with much of a run game threat, at least not that as great as WVU's, and the UM front seven has just one starter back. This could be where the Mountaineers make their money, especially facing a solid secondary and having yet to throw the ball consistently. The run game must adequately support the pass, and the West Virginia offensive line simply must perform better than it did last week. Pass protection was adequate, but far too often the Mountaineers got shoved back into rush plays. They also created lanes at times, but much of that was with the help of other backs out of offset and diamond formations – which is fine, if that's what it takes. What can't happen, and did last week, is the guard getting shoved back into a play and blowing it up before the handoff is even given.
Use the misdirection, like on the first play against Georgia State, keep the backs fresh and ride the horse that gets lathered up. If it takes the entire backfield to run, via trio formations, do it. And if it works, coach, do it again. Childress must be allowed to sling it some, but to put him in second and third and longs all day is courting disaster. Safe, comeback patterns and take what UM gives, be it across the middle, as last week, or down the sidelines.
Childress has said he held back on some of the deep passes, and that he would let it rip this week, so that true arm strength will be tested. West Virginia seems to have found its quarterback, but this week will be the real test. The holes will be there in Maryland's 3-4, ran aggressively under coordinator Brian Stewart, who contained WVU well last year. But they won't be glaring, and the best bet is a sturdy run game and maintaining a solid line presence in pass pro and in the run game to limit pressure and maximize positive gains while minimizing the potential of significant losses. It won't necessarily be the team that makes the least mistakes that wins, but every one piled atop another lessens the percentages.