COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Joe Riddle is the most important man at Maryland football practices this week. The sophomore from Frederick is Melvin Gordon on the Terrapin scout team in preparation for the Oct. 25 trip to Wisconsin.
And if you don’t know who Melvin Gordon is, trust me, you will by game time Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
“Joe is super fast and that’s a good comparison,” said Maryland inside linebacker L.A. Goree. “He gives us that look where if he cuts back and you miss a lane, he’s going to score. Joe is one of the fastest people I know.”
The Terrapins (5-2, 2-1) are hurriedly working this week to figure out a way to put the clamps on Gordon, the nation’s leading rusher at 174.3 yards per game and a staggering 7.32 yards per rushing attempt. Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1) has been making swiss cheese of opposing defenses to the tune of a nation’s best 343.0 yards per game on the ground.
“They’re a physical team so you want to match that physicality with being physical, that’s the biggest thing,” said senior linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil. ”It’s a big challenge, they get most of their yards on the ground. Melvin Gordon is doing a great job of running the ball right now. He’s one of the best in the country. He’s a physical, downhill runner. He can beat you on the edges. They just want to run the ball at you.”
Opponents have had some success in that regard against the Terrapins this season. Three of the last four foes have been over 200 yards rushing, and Syracuse piled up 370 yards on the ground. The ray of sunshine headed into Camp Randall for the noon kickoff is what the Terrapins have done more recently.
Last week, Maryland held Iowa to 116 yards rushing, the second lowest total of the season for the Hawkeyes, in a 38-31 home win. Three games ago, the Terrapins held Indiana star Tevin Coleman about 75 yards below his average, though that meant he still garnered 122 stripes.
Goree, who is second on the team with 60 tackles despite missing a full game, said the Wisconsin offense reminds him of Iowa, and the Terrapins took care of business in the trenches against the Hawkeyes, forcing them to throw the ball 56 times. Wisconsin hasn’t thrown the ball more than 29 times in any game and they’ve attempted less than 20 aerials in three contests so far.
The Wisconsin cheese grater of an offensive line has five guys over 6-3, 305 pounds, and they like to move the ends around and disguise their looks, then run over opponents. But just what makes the running game so good?
“I’m sure it doesn’t hurt having an offensive line that big,” said Goree. “They do a lot of shifting and try to get your eyes in different places. Sometimes that throws off the defense. We watch enough film to make sure our fits are right and react to all their shifts and motion and the theatrics they do.”
Maryland coach Randy Edsall is counting on his team to use proper technique and execute the fundamentals. “It’s a tremendous challenge for our defense,” he reiterated Tuesday at the team’s weekly press luncheon.
Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate, does present some special challenges. “He’s a very special running back,” said the coach. “He’s got speed. He’s got vision. He’s got good explosiveness. He’s got power to him, as well. He’s an all-around back, and they try to gain leverage on you and out-number you. You’ve got to be really good in protecting the edges and make sure everyone fits properly against the runs that you’re going to see.”
The Terps take a little swagger into Madison, though, after the gutsy win over Iowa and boasting a five-game road winning streak, including three victories away from Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium this season.
“I don’t know if there’s any special formula, if we’ve done anything different,” said Edsall of the streak. “We just get the kids focused on what we have to do between the lines. It’s guys believing they can win.”
Edsall thought his team finally learned how to win on the road late last year at Virginia Tech. “When you do something you gain confidence, and I think that’s what happened. Our guys gained some confidence and we’ve just been able to go and prepare and block things out. When you go on the road, you have to block everything out. And you have to have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder because you don’t have many people cheering for you.”
“You have to stay focused,” said Cudjoe-Virgil. “The crowd is against you. You’re going into a hostile environment and (Coach Edsall) keeps stressing to come out fast. Don’t wait until the second quarter to start playing ball. Play every snap like it’s your last one. I think we’ve been able to do that on the road.”
Camp Randall is legendarily raucous, especially heading into the fourth quarter when the students start jumping around and making noise. One of the oldest stadiums in the country, built in 1917, Camp Randall now seats 80,321. Since 2004, the Badgers have been particularly rugged there, winning 65 of 72 games (.903 winning percentage). They’re averaging 78,856 fans per home game this season.
“Big stadium, big team,” said Goree. “I think this is a critical point in our season where we can be either a really good team or a mediocre team. We’re going out there to prove ourselves.”
“We want to keep our streak (on the road) going,” said defensive end Andre Monroe. “You always want to keep winning. It’s kind of a reassuring thing to all of us that we can get streaks and keep the ball rolling and use the momentum to the next game and the next game.”
Monroe is a big part of a defense that has produced 19 sacks so far this season, the third best total in the Big Ten. Monroe leads the team with five sacks and he relishes the challenge a big offensive line like they have in Madison presents.
“I always look forward to playing Saturday no matter who is in front of me,” said the 5-11 senior. “I think I have an advantage with leverage. Everybody knows the lowest man wins on the line.”
Right behind Monroe with four sacks, “Young Yannick” Ngakoue is emerging as the next big thing in the front seven. The sophomore linebacker is second in the Big Ten with 1.36 tackles for loss per game. He’s “Young Yannick” because Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil is a senior.
“I knew since summer workouts (Ngakoue) was going to have a big year,” said Cudjoe-Virgil. “I could see him develop and his work ethic. I always feel that if you put in the work you will receive the results. It was just a matter of time.”
Meanwhile Cudjoe-Virgil has come back from the foot injury that kept him out earlier this year but he can’t get the bullish Ngakoue off the field. Ngakoue’s power rush has made him a staple in opponents’ backfields, and the duo is making big plays on the weakside these days.
Likewise, senior Matt Robinson’s return after a three game absence (shoulder) was a boost to the defense. Robinson, the converted safety and now a hybrid cover linebacker on the strong side, broke up a career high three passes against Iowa and had seven tackles.
The week off after the Ohio State game did wonders for the Terrapins, who got healthy, particularly on defense. Inside linebackers Cole Farrand and Goree had 11 tackles and seven, respectively, and Darius Kilgo was literally huge at nose tackle with six tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery.
Now, the group faces an even bigger test, again literally, in Wisconsin.
Offensively, Maryland is working against a unit ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense (17.7 points per game) and in the top 25 in every significant defensive category. The Terrapins counter with a big-play offense that can strike from anywhere on the field but would like to possess the ball a little Saturday to help out the Terrapin defense.
Maryland has made 30 plays of 20 or more yards this season, including eight against Indiana, the Terrapins’ last Big Ten road game. Of those 30 plays, 12 have been scoring plays.
Last week, Stefon Diggs turned in a 53-yard touchdown reception, turning a screen pass into a big play. Diggs had his best receiving day of the season with nine grabs for 130 yards. The talented junior has caught a pass in 25 straight games. He has 13 career touchdown receptions and six have been on catches of 40 yards or more.
Wisconsin, typically, makes it tough on opposing offenses, particularly through the air. They’re eighth nationally, allowing just 116.8 yards passing through unfriendly skies. “They’re very sound and they have a (4-3) scheme they believe in,” said Edsall. “They can play man coverage and be able to get an extra guy in the box to be able to do things. They run to the ball and execute well.”
A key, as in most contests, could be turnovers, the Terrapins adept so far at taking the ball away from opponents. Please also see Will Likely’s clutch 45-yard interception return last week for a key score in the win over Iowa. The Terrapins are tied for third in the Big Ten with 14 takeaways this season. That’s seven interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, and on a pace for 24 turnovers this season, the most in three years.
Somehow Maryland must get the ball away from that offense that averages 33:48 in time of possession. Gordon is averaging 217 yards in the last four games, including a 38-28 win at Illinois two weeks ago. The Badgers rested up last week during their bye.
Meanwhile, the Terrapins are eyeing a sixth win and bowl eligibility, but in perhaps a statement where the program is these days, that doesn’t seem to be as big an issue as in recent years. “We just want to win every game,” said Cudjoe-Virgil. “That’s the idea when you look at the schedule before the season. I don’t think we limit ourselves to six (wins). I think we feel like we can beat any team on our schedule. It just comes down to winning every game. We expect to win.”
Terrapins Ready for Rumble in Camp Randall
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