Maryland sits at 5-3 and is one game away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time in three years. They played Clemson tough two weeks ago and are looking to build off that against Syracuse this Saturday at home.
Maryland prefers to run an up-tempo spread system predicated on short, quick passes in order to take advantage of their receivers. Of course, with the Terps' top two wide-outs, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, going down with season-ending leg injuries, it's been a bit tougher to find reliable options. Not to mention the offensive line has struggled so far, which has limited what the offense can do.
The Terps would like to run the ball to take some pressure off quarterback C.J. Brown -- who returns this week after missing the last game with an unspecified injury -- and the passing game, but UMD hasn't generated a huge push up front, nor do they have those "burner" backs that strike fear in defenses. That said, Brown is capable of running the zone read, and when plays break down he is able to make things happen with his feet. Sometimes that is the Terps' best offense as they've had trouble finding a consistent rhythm passing or running.
The aforementioned Brown is a heady player who has been in the program for five years now. He knows how to read defenses, limit mistakes and has a solid feel for the game. Brown's arm isn't elite, but he can make most of the throws in the short to intermediate range, and he did have a rapport with the likes of Diggs and Long before each went down. Moreover, Brown has surprising speed and scrambling ability, and he's been known to beat linebackers to the edge and turn it up down the sideline.
At the same time, Brown isn't always accurate with his passes, and sometimes they tend to sail or he'll throw behind a guy. He's hung his receivers out to dry a few times, exposing them to big hits. So consistency and precision are areas Brown battles with from time to time, though when he finds a rhythm he can move the ball, and move it quickly.
With Diggs and Long out, the Terps rely on a potpourri of receiving options to make up for their production. Of course, it hasn't always worked out, though Maryland's backup wide-outs do no lack for talent. Levern Jacobs has stepped up nicely, and although he had a key drop against Clemson two weeks ago, he's explosive and can create yards after the catch.
Nigel King, a supremely athletic downfield threat, has never reached his full potential and has been inconsistent throughout his four-year career. That said, he's always a threat to make a big play and he did have a few nifty grabs two weeks ago. Again, he has to hold onto the football and consistently make plays for his QB, however. The third receiver, Amba Etta-Tawo, is someone who impressed during the preseason but hasn't made two much noise this fall. He's a blue-collar type who plays hard and has some wheels but hasn't been a game-changer.
At tight end, Dave Stinebaugh has been dinged up a bit, though he should be back in the lineup this week. He's not the type of TE who is going to haul in eight balls a game and go for 70 yards, but he has soft hands and can make a play down the seam. If the middle of the field is open, Brown will look to Stinebaugh in that area.
Maryland's three running backs include two powerful, downhill runners in Brandon Ross and Albert Reid and one scat back in Jacquille Veii. Ross and Reid have shown flashes and both have had a few impressive runs, but neither has been able to establish themselves as a true feature back. Some of that falls on the offensive line, but the backs themselves have to run with better vision, cut-back ability, etc. Veii, who is only a freshman, is a potential fireball, though he doesn't get many opportunities yet. He's quick, speedy and can make guys miss in the open field.
In the Trenches
Maryland's offensive line has been a work in progress the last two years. It just took a significant hit when, during the bye week, starting left tackle Mike Madaras suddenly announced he was leaving the program (he said his heart wasn't in the game). That was just the latest blow to a line that started the season with a new right tackle (Ryan Doyle) because senior Nick Klemm has been hurt, a walk-on at right guard (Michael Dunn) and a left guard who has been inconsistent (De'Onte Arnett). Center Sal Conaboy is considered the most consistent lineman of the bunch, but even he's been shaky against some of the ACC's better interior lines.
Right now, with Madaras gone, it looks like true freshman Moise Larose has been elevated to the starting left tackle spot. Larose is a big, wide body at 6-6, 296, but he's still a freshman and has played sparingly this season.
Maryland is a base 3-4 defense that prides itself on generating pressure up front and maintaining gap integrity. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart puts his players in the best position to succeed by taking advantage of what they do best while trying to compensate for any shortcomings. Maryland will move around its linebackers, bring in extra defensive backs and switch up the defensive front just to give offenses a different look.
In the Trenches
Maryland's front three have played well throughout the season, as they've done well busting up the backfield and eating up blockers so the LBs can clean up. Junior DariusKilgo is a mean, ferocious nose tackle who sheds well and does a good job holding his ground against multiple offensive linemen. He commands double teams, because when teams try to block him straight up he'll beat his man off the ball and collapse the pocket.
The Terps' best pass rusher up front has been Quinton Jefferson, a first year starter who has stepped in admirably for the departed Joe Vellano (New England Patriots). Jefferson has a quick first step and has beaten his share of O-tackles rushing off the edge. His complement on the opposite end, Keith Bowers, hasn't been quite as effective getting after the quarterback, but he's a solid edge setter and run defender.
Also, it's worth noting a couple rotational players who have contributed this year. Roman Braglio, a sophomore, is a stout plugger who has made a few nifty tackles at DE, while graduate student Zeke Riser is now healthy and playing valuable minutes subbing for Bowers.
The Back Seven
Maryland's linebackers have been riddled with injuries. The team has seen its best rush LB, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, go down with a season-ending injuring, while both Matt Robinson and Alex Twine have missed time.
Robinson, though, seems to be healthy now and has resumed his starting spot at outside linebacker. When he's on the field, he's able to cover tight ends and receivers ranging over the middle, so his speed and instincts are invaluable to the unit. The second outside linebacker, Marcus Whitfield, has done a great job rushing the passer and limiting yards after contact. He's a solid all-around defender who will make a key play from time to time. His backup, freshman Yannick Ngakoue, is a supremely talented rush linebacker who rotates in as well.
On the inside, junior Cole Farrand is the unit's best and most experienced returner from last season. He's not a guy who is going to rack up sexy stats like sacks and TFLs, but he's a steady contributor who wraps up well, moves efficiently in coverage and makes sure guys are in the right spots. Next to him, junior L.A. Goree has been effective since being thrust into the lineup. Now, he's not the same player as Cudjoe-Virgil, but there's not much of a drop-off in terms of field awareness and tackling ability.
On the back end, Maryland lost its two starting corners in Dexter McDougle (out for the season) and J.J. Johnson (out this week). That's forced them to rely on true freshman Will Likely and nickel back Isaac Goins to assume starting roles. Likely is a plus cover man with terrific skills, but sometimes he's too physical and once in awhile he'll miss an assignment and get beat. Goins hasn't played poorly, though he's also given up his share of long receptions.
At safety, Anthony Nixon is considered the most reliable player in the secondary right now. That doesn't mean he's infallible -- there were some communication issues that led to long touchdowns earlier this year – but he reads well and is fundamentally sound. Sean Davis, meanwhile, has started to come along as a tackler and has made a few nice plays in coverage. But he's also suffered a few mental lapses and isn't the most consistent player in coverage.
Kicker Brad Craddock has bounced back since having a shaky freshman campaign, converting 15 of 18 kicks. Though he hasn't been perfect and did miss one extra point, there's no doubt Craddock has a strong leg and can knock it through from 45-plus. Punter Nate Renfro has been OK this year, though he's shanked a couple kicks and won't rank among the ACC leaders in punt average. Renfro hasn't played poorly, however, and it's not like the Terps are looking to replace him.
As far as returning kicks goes, Maryland relies on true freshman Will Likely to handle punt and kick return duties now that Diggs is out. Likely has had his moments with a few long returns, but he's also muffed a couple punts. For Likely, it's all about gaining experience and confidence, because he's certainly a talented player.
Maryland plays better when its at Byrd Stadium, so I don't expect a letdown by any means. Moreover, they're coming off a bye week and are eager to grab that sixth win and become bowl eligible. The Terps have had their issues, especially on the offensive end, but the defense has played relatively well and kept them in games. Given Syracuse's issues at quarterback, and knowing the Orange have a strong defense as well, I'd expect this to be a low scoring game that could come down to who convert in the red zone and who thrives on special teams. Given that, I'd say Maryland has a bit of an advantage with Craddock, while also featuring a defense that keeps teams out of the end zone.