Duality is a trait that most, if not all, football coaches seek to avoid, but for head coach Ralph Friedgen, that's exactly what he's got with his 2008 Maryland football program. The Terrapins remain in the hunt for the ACC's Atlantic Division with a 6-3 (3-2 ACC) record, but how they achieved those wins and losses is what has many observers wondering which team will show up on any given Saturday.
Maryland is one of six schools this season to upset three ranked opponents (California, Clemson, Wake Forest), but the Terrapins also suffered a 31-0 loss to Virginia and were upset by Middle Tennessee State, 24-14. Maryland has a difficult closing stretch, finishing with No. 17 North Carolina and No. 20 Florida State before visiting Boston College on Nov. 29.
"We have to decide what we want to be," Friedgen said following the loss at Virginia Tech
"I feel the weight loss has helped me tremendously. Last year, I could see the hole but really couldn't get to it at my weight, but now I feel I'm more explosive and can make moves and make people miss." – UNC running back Ryan Houston, who is down to 241 pounds from 273 last season
"The best thing our players have done this entire season is that they've been able to focus on one game at a time. And look at ourselves honestly and every week realize that we're not perfect." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
Maryland running back Da'Rel Scott is currently second in the ACC in rushing yards (91.1 yards per game), ranks fifth in the league in all-purpose yards (110.0 ypg), and boasts eight carries of at least 24 yards this season, the longest being a 63-yarder against Delaware. Those are impressive enough statistics for any healthy tail back at the BCS level. But healthy is one thing that the red-shirt sophomore has not been for the majority of the season.
Scott exploded out of the gates, rolling up 407 yards in the Terrapins' first three games of the season before being slammed to the turf against California, injuring his left shoulder. He's worn a yellow "no contact" jersey during practice off and on since that September victory, and after re-aggravating the injury against N.C. State, he sat out most of last week's practice heading into the Virginia Tech contest.
But while Scott was held to 11 yards on 10 carries in Blacksburg, he was able to get into the action with five receptions for 57 yards. He's battling through an injury when his team needs him down the stretch, which is what emerging leaders do for their teammates.
Following the 26-0 victory over No. 21 Wake Forest in October, Scott led the postgame celebration for the Terrapins.
"Da'Rel was going nuts in the locker room," Friedgen said after the game. "He was up there screaming. I've never seen him like that."
With another nine days to rest, Maryland is hopeful that Scott will be well enough against the Tar Heels to return to his early-season form, as he is on pace to become the seventh back to rush for 1,000 yards and first since 2002. North Carolina is hopeful that it's catching Scott and the Terrapins at the right time, just before he's back to full health.
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Defense vs. MD's Balanced Offense
The Tar Heel defense has encountered a variety of challenges on the football field this season, and for the most part, they've survived nearly every one. But Maryland presents something that North Carolina hasn't had to scheme for this fall, and that's a balanced offense.
Notre Dame brought Jimmy Clausen and his high-powered passing game to Chapel Hill, just like Georgia Tech showcased its triple option rushing attack last weekend, but the Terrapins boasts the 3rd-ranked total offense (351.2 yards per game) in the conference – one that is averaging a league-best 5.9 yards per play.
Leading the charge is the aforementioned Scott and his 91.1 rushing yards per game.
"It is going to be important to stop the run and make them one-dimensional," defensive tackle Marvin Austin said. "They do a lot of things on offense to confuse the defense. They try to make the same things look different and make different things look the same."
But stopping the run only brings quarterback Chris Turner into play, the ACC's second-rated passer (128.3). The junior is averaging 185.3 passing yards per game, and he has a NFL-bound receiver at his disposal, junior Darrius Heyward-Bey (30 catches for 496 yards and six touchdowns). Turner has just one interception in his last 157 pass attempts, dating back to the fourth quarter of the Eastern Michigan game, thanks in part to an offensive line that has allowed just six sacks in the last six contests.
But if the Tar Heels can contain Scott on the ground, then that interception streak will be challenged by one of the most opportunistic defenses in the country, as North Carolina leads the nation with 18 picks (tied with Boston College) and ranks fourth in turnover margin (plus-1.44 margin equates to +16 turnovers).
UNC's Ground Game vs. MD's Run Defense
North Carolina's running attack has developed into a vital cog of the offense over the last month, due to the emergence of Shaun Draughn (averaging 98.4 yards in the last five games) as the feature back and Ryan Houston (236 yards and seven TD) as the short-yardage specialist. The Tar Heels have faced two of the more stout run defenses in the league in recent outings against Boston College and Georgia Tech, so the tail back duo must be salivating at what awaits them in College Park on Saturday – the ACC's 11th-ranked run defense (152.3 ypg).
"We have to pound the ball on them at first and then try to open up the pass," Houston said.
But just as the entire Maryland team has been hit-or-miss this season, so has the run defense. The Terrapins have only surrendered 23 total points in the second half of their five ACC games, with no better example available than the victory against Clemson on September 27.
Tigers running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller combined for 193 yards and two touchdowns by halftime, but the Terrapins held Clemson to 28 rushing yards in the final 30 minutes of play.
North Carolina's running game has enabled the play action pass, and quarterback Cam Sexton fully expects his team to utilize its full playbook to depart Maryland with a victory.
"I think they really use their personnel well," Sexton said. "I think they do some things schematically we have seen a little bit this year, but not too much of this season. I think they will do a good job matching up against us, so it is going to be a week of preparation where we need to do a good job working on the individual stuff of our offense."
* Maryland has won all three of its games vs. ranked foes (AP poll) this season (No. 23 Cal; No. 20 Clemson; No. 21 Wake Forest) and five straight over the last two years (No. 8 Boston College and No. 10 Rutgers in 2007).
* Maryland is in search of its 200th ACC victory Saturday. Only Clemson (224) has more conference wins. The Terps have an all-time record of 199-164-4 (.548) in ACC games, including a 36-25 (.590) mark under Friedgen.