COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Tuesday of West Virginia week and there was something missing at the weekly football press conference.
Oh, there were the usual football platitudes and technical talk but there wasn’t the fire we’ve sometimes heard about Maryland’s “Border Rivals” in years past. And maybe that was premeditated.
Of the players talking to the media, only senior Jefferson Ashiru had been on the field in West Virginia against the Mountaineers before, and he did it while playing for Connecticut.
“I remember going to West Virginia my freshman year, I didn’t play but the crowd noise was crazy,” said Ashiru, heading into his fourth start at linebacker for the Terps after transferring this summer. “There was a packed house. It was a passionate crowd. I look forward to playing in front of the crowd there.”
Maryland coach Randy Edsall, of course, used great technique in not saying anything inflammatory about West Virginia, a natural Maryland rival since the programs first met in 1919. The ‘Neers have a 27-22-2 edge all-time, but the two teams have split the last two meetings, WVU winning 40-37 on a field goal in the final three minutes last year in College Park.
“West Virginia this week, and the history of the schools playing each other for a number of years,” said Edsall. “We’re bordering states. It’s significant also because of implications in recruiting, as well. It’s a big game because, like I said, it’s the next one on the schedule.”
And that would specifically be this Saturday at 3 p.m., at 60,000-seat Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.
West Virginia is in such a ridiculously far-flung conference (Big 12) that Maryland is the only true geographic rival on the Mountaineer schedule these days. But you’re not going to get any Ralph Friedgen, red-faced ire this week or A.J. Francis calling out the West Virginians or Scott McBrien trying oh-so-hard to keep his emotions in check.
Nope, the Terrapins will be ready to play, no doubt, but they’re not going to talk about it beyond some very basic points everyone understands.
“It’s a very tough environment,” said Edsall. “Their fans are passionate about their team. It’s sold-out from what I understand. We know it’s going to be loud. We pumped crowd (sound) into practice today, tomorrow and Thursday.”
And that’s about the only noise we’re going to hear. C’mon, man. Anyone want to talk about what a big game this is? West Virginia (2-0), but wins against teams in football parlance that are basic cable instead of Direct TV, and Maryland (2-1), two victories sandwiched around a blasting from Bowling Green in Byrd.
“I definitely feel like this is a big game, obviously because it’s our first road test,” said freshman tight end Avery Edwards. “A lot of guys know more than me about the rivalry and playing in that environment. I heard a couple of guys say they let last year’s game slip away so they’re trying to get that back.”
Edwards, an early breakout star this season, said the team got refocused last week, not so much looking ahead to South Florida but looking back at that Bowling Green game, a 48-27 loss that shook the entire squad and made Edsall make some changes.
“That loss really hurt us,” said Edwards. “Going into last week’s practice, everyone was focused. There wasn’t any messing around on the sidelines. Everyone was keyed in.”
And Speaking of Keys
This isn’t your father’s West Virginia team, maybe not even your older brother’s. They’ll run more than in the past and “Air Raid” less, though they’ve still got speedy weapons all over.
“They’ve got a lot of speed and explosive plays,” said Ashiru of what he had seen on tape. “But we’ve got a lot of speed and explosive plays, as well.”
Quarterback Skylar Howard seems a perfect triggerman for the Mountaineers. He’s a dangerous runner and he makes quick reads in the passing game, both issues that will make him tough against a Terrapin pass rush that has been dominant at times this season.
Take the six sacks last week against South Florida. Quarterback Quinton Flowers did.
That’s 14 sacks on the season, if you’re keeping score. It’s the second most in the nation and the most in the Big Ten. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has 4.5 sacks the last two games and defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson has 3.5 on the season. Watch blossoming Jesse Aniebonam come in on the opposite end from Ngakoue on passing downs and Roman Braglio move inside. Both of them have two sacks this season.
But WVU’s quickness, not just in speedy playmakers, but in quick, short passes will present a real challenge. “(Howard) is mobile like the guy we played last week,” said Ashiru. “We’ve got to keep him contained in the pocket, and if he gets out we’ve got to get him to the ground.”
We still need some work,” said Edsall. “When you take a look at it, we’re still very young on defense. I mean very young. Up front we really have no returning starters back. At linebacker, really no returning starters there.
“A.J. Hendy starting for the first time in the secondary. Sean (Davis) is still learning as a corner. I thought we improved defensively and that’s the thing, as long as we can continue to improve each and every week, then I think we’ll be doing the things we need to do.”
Bowling Green’s veteran offensive unit exposed that youth, and Maryland learned from the painful experience. Now, West Virginia, which is averaging 42.5 points, will present another huge test.
“I love the challenge,” said Ashiru. “When you play football you live for a challenge. I look forward to playing in front of a crowd like that.”
Ashiru who moved in as a starter when Abner Logan was lost to a season-ending injury in the preseason, said he’s still making a transition after playing for four years in Connecticut’s defense.
The 6-1, 235 pound linebacker had nine tackles against USF, but admitted he’s still adjusting to his role in a different Maryland defense. “Every school plays their positions differently,” he explained. “Like linebackers, d-line, dbs, everywhere it’s just a little bit different so it’s just adjusting to the way (Maryland coaches) want me to play. I’m getting there.”
“I thought he played a little bit better last week,” said Edsall. “I think he is starting to be more comfortable with the scheme and understanding everything he’s responsible for. A guy that has played as much football as he did prior to coming here, we expect him to get better, and I think that he has.”
Perhaps no Terrapin defender had as big an improvement Week Two to Week Three as Sean Davis, who had nine tackles, a forced fumble and two interceptions against South Florida. Edsall said they’re looking for even more from the Maryland defensive backs, who held USF to 60 yards passing.
The coach talked about “banging” the wide receivers to knock them off their routes a little more, something particularly important this week to disrupt the timing of the WVU passing attack.
Keeping the ‘No-Sack-Attack’ Going
On offense, Edwards and fellow freshman D.J. Moore, a wide receiver coming off his first start, were most concerned about the different looks the Mountaineer defense could present out of a base 3-3-5 set.
“What we’ve seen on tape is that they move around a lot,” said Moore. “We have to be ready for them.”
“They’re athletic across the board, especially the safeties and linebackers,” said Edwards. “The linebackers can cover down the seam and they drop the safeties down (to stop the run). They do a lot of moving around and it’s tough to get a read on them, what coverage they’re going to play. They have a very unorthodox defense. We have to do a lot of studying this week.”
Much of the onus will be on quarterback Caleb Rowe, making his second straight start, to recognize and attack that defense. Moore thinks Rowe and the Terrapins are ready. “We get all our receivers touches down the field with Caleb,” said Moore. “The way he can make strides is scanning the field faster and getting to the person that is open.”
Moore thought the early 70-yard touchdown strike to Taivon Jacobs, also moved into the starting lineup last week, was a boon to Rowe’s confidence last week. “He was probably a little nervous but then he threw the deep ball to Taivon and that gave everyone confidence. From there, we were able to make a lot of plays down the field.”
As for Moore, who had three receptions for 47 yards, he got over any jitters quickly in his first start. “It was a big adjustment because I wasn’t expecting to start the third week of the season. I had to have a lot of confidence in myself to make the big plays.”
Another factor in Rowe & Co., making those plays downfield is that for the third week in a row, Maryland quarterbacks escaped unscathed, opponents unable to record a sack against an offensive line cobbled together in the preseason from some parts that weren’t expected to play major roles heading into camp. Edsall said the offensive line is getting a lot done as a group.
“I think one of the biggest things that has happened with the offensive line is the communication, everybody being on the same page,” he said. “I think (center) Evan Mulrooney has done a good job of making the calls for us and identifying where we’re going to turn our protection. Then I think guys have really worked hard to use good technique.”
Edwards is more concise about a unit that has taken more than it’s fair share of criticism in recent seasons. “I think they have each other’s backs,” he said.
Avery Has A Very Good Start
Edwards had his first two college touchdowns in the 35-17 win over South Florida, famously punctuating the first with a Gronkowskiesque spike that caught everyone, including him, by surprise.
“I went up to (Coach Edsall) and apologized like four or five times after the game,” he said. “I said, ‘Coach, that’s not me, that’s not my character.’ He said, ‘Avery, I get the message, you’re good.’ Well, I don’t know if he said that. He just said don’t let it happen again.”
Edwards has been the butt of good-natured ribbing in Gossett Team House since the incident. “Some of the coaches are still mad at me,” he continued. “One said if I was his player, my parents would be planning funeral right now.”
Turns out with Edwards scoring another touchdown, sans ball-spike, it wasn’t actually a life-and-death situation any more. One thing is sure, the Terrapins, who have loved their multiple wide receiver formations in recent years, are now finding more ways to get tight ends involved.
Edwards isn’t surprised. “I think the tight end room is stacked (in team meetings). P.J. Gallo knows it all. He runs everything with the right technique. Derrick Hayward is a great tight end. He has all the ability in the world. Everyone worked their butt off this offseason.”
Edwards’ ascension to the position has actually taken longer. He was a gawky 6-4, 205-pound end playing in a spread offense as a freshman at Ravenscroft High School in Raleigh, NC.
“I wasn’t as naturally as fast or quick as the other receivers,” he recalled. "I went to a combine and one of the coaches told me to play college football I needed to start thinking about tight end. He told me to stay outside as long as I could to work on quickness, speed and ball-skills. It was great advice.”
By his senior year, his high school team had ditched the spread in favor of a more pro-style attack, and Edwards got a real taste of tight end. “I got my nose dirty,” he laughed about blocking more.
His pass-catching skills are setting him apart at the position now. He is third on the team with six catches for a 9.3-yard average and is tied with Levern Jacobs for the team lead with two touchdown receptions. His abilities could be a key this week in keeping West Virginia off balance.