The actual football game will likely take a backseat to other news surrounding Maryland athletics this week as it was announced on Monday that the Terrapins will be joining the Big 10 in 2014. Nonetheless, the game on Saturday is still an ACC contest and the final chapter of what has been a frustrating and unprecedented season for head coach Randy Edsall and Maryland.
Not much was expected from the Terps this season coming off a disastrous 2011 campaign in which Maryland lost its final eight games and finished 2-10. Thirteen players, including starting quarterback Danny O'Brien, left the program in the offseason. O'Brien transferred to Wisconsin where he began the season as the starting quarterback but has played sparingly since a 10-7 loss to Oregon State on Sept. 8.
Despite the attrition, Maryland expected to enter the season with 15 returning starters including 10 on defense alone. However, the injury big bit the Terrapins before the season even began. Quarterback C.J. Brown, who started five games in 2011, tore his ACL in August. Standout defensive lineman Andre Monroe underwent surgery for a knee injury and was lost for the season just a few weeks later. Overall, the Terrapins were without 10 potential starters for the season opener against William & Mary.
Injuries aside, Maryland jumped out to a surprising 4-2 start with wins over conference foes Wake Forest and Virginia. However, another rash of injuries finally took its toll on the Terrapins. The three quarterbacks behind Brown all suffered season-ending injuries as well, forcing converted freshman linebacker Shawn Petty (23-of-49, 292 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT) to take the reins under center. Petty has started the last three games, all losses for the Terrapins. Maryland has lost five straight since the 4-2 start.
In addition to the slew of quarterback injuries, leading rusher Wes Brown (90 car, 382 yards, 2 TD) as well as leading tackler Demetrius Hartsfield (78 tackles, 2.5 sacks) were both lost for the season in recent weeks.
To state the obvious, the lack of a quarterback is going to limit an offense's ability to move the ball and score. Such is the case for Maryland, which ranks last in FBS in total offense (273.91 ypg), 112th in scoring (18.54 ppg), 102nd in passing (178.64 ypg) and 113th in rushing (95.27 ypg).
"This weekend we play North Carolina, which is a team with a very fast paced offense. When you take a look at it, there are a lot of similarities between their offense and our offense, and same thing on defense. They are terrific offensively and they have an outstanding quarterback. Another guy, who you don't really hear about, is their left guard Jonathan Cooper, who is outstanding and is one of the best.
"They have been able to generate a lot of points, so we have a tremendous challenge defensively. They also have a defense that will bring pressure and they have a lot of good athletes. Going to their place is also a challenge because they have a very good environment but our guys are going to be ready to go. It is the last time that our 17 seniors get to put on a Maryland uniform so we want to make sure that we can go down there and finish on a high note and go into the offseason with a good taste in our mouths." – Edsall
"[Maryland offensive coordinator] Mike Locksley has done a really nice job with the kid that they've got right now at quarterback and putting together an offense that the kid is able to execute. They're doing quite a bit of option, trying to keep the ball in his hands. They're very limited on what they're doing throwing-wise making sure they try to get the ball in Stefon Diggs's hands in as many ways as possible. I think Mike's done a nice job of putting together an offense that the kid can run." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora
Matchups to Watch
Maryland's Stefon Diggs vs. UNC's Defense
Diggs, a freshman wide receiver, presents the North Carolina secondary one final test in what has been an up-and-down season for the defense. Diggs (46 rec, 766 yards, 6 TD) ranks fifth in the ACC in receiving, accounts for 31 percent of Maryland's receptions and 39 percent of the team's receiving yards. These numbers are even more impressive considering Diggs has received passes from three different quarterbacks and a linebacker so far this season.
Diggs missed the game at Clemson due to injury, but in two other games with Petty as quarterback, Diggs has caught eight passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
The North Carolina secondary has been troubled by quality receivers this season. Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro (13 rec, 164 yards), Virginia Tech's Corey Fuller (5 rec, 143 yards, 1 TD) and Duke's Conner Vernon (6 rec, 124 yards) all rank among the ACC's top-10 leading receivers. All had their best outing in ACC play against the Tar Heels.
While Tanner Price, Logan Thomas and Sean Renfree will not be throwing the ball to Diggs, the Maryland offense will surely find ways to get the ball in the hands of its top playmaker.
The Terrapins can use North Carolina's performance last week as a blueprint. Freshman Quinshad Davis tied an ACC record with 16 receptions against Virginia. Many of those catches were on short routes or screens that did not require the quarterback to make a high-risk pass. With a converted linebacker playing quarterback for the Terrapins, throws like those as well as the option and reverses will be necessary to get Diggs in position to make a play with his feet. Even with the Tar Heels struggles defending deep routes, it will be tough for Maryland to rely on Petty to make throws downfield.
The Tar Heels rank 81st in pass defense (49.73 ypg). While the defense is prone to surrendering a big play, the North Carolina secondary is also very opportunistic. It leads the ACC in interceptions with 15. Cornerback Tim Scott and safety Tre Boston have each scored touchdowns off interceptions in the past two games.
While Petty has thrown just one interception compared to five touchdowns since he became the starting quarterback, he has completed under 47 percent of his passes and averaged slightly above 97 yards per game.
Maryland's Joe Vellano vs. UNC's Rushing Offense
Saturday is the final time offensive linemen Jonathan Cooper and Travis Bond will put on a North Carolina jersey. The duo, along with the injured Brennan Williams, has battled their fair share of great defensive linemen. Sam Montgomery and Brandon Jenkins immediately come to mind. Saturday provides one final test in Maryland's Joe Vellano.
The 6-foot-2 285-pound tackle was named an All-American and a consensus first-team All-ACC choice in 2011. The senior is expected to receive similar awards following this season before he heads towards a likely career in the NFL. Vellano ranks fourth in the ACC in tackles for loss (14), fifth in sacks (6) and is Maryland's third leading tackler (60). Vellano also has an interception this season.
The Rexford, N.Y. product anchors a Maryland defense that has been formidable this season despite personnel losses and the struggles of the Terrapin offense. Statistically, the Maryland defense is the best North Carolina has faced all season. The Terrapins rank 15th in the country in total defense (322.55 ypg), behind only Florida State in the ACC. While Maryland does surrender 25.6 points per game, it is particularly stout against the run, ranking 20th nationally and 2nd in the ACC in rush defense (123.91 ypg).
It is no secret that North Carolina likes to get Gio Bernard the football. Whether that is on the ground, through the air or returning punts, the goal is simply to get the ball in Bernard's hands as many times as possible. While Bernard is one of the most versatile players in the country, his bread and butter is running the ball.
Following four straight 100-plus yard rushing efforts in October, Bernard has failed to crack the 80-yard mark in the past two games. He averaged just 4.35 yards per carry against Georgia Tech and Virginia after averaging 7.38 yards per carry through the Oct. 27 win over N.C. State.
It is not as though Bernard is suddenly in a slump. Over the past couple of weeks, teams have concentrated on stopping the red-shirt sophomore and the Tar Heel running game. North Carolina averages 194.27 rushing yards per game, good for 37th in the country. However, the Heels have been held to just 137 yards per game on the ground in the past two weeks.
North Carolina took advantage of the Yellow Jackets and Cavaliers packing the box to stop Bernard and company by moving the ball through the air. Quarterback Bryn Renner threw for 665 yards, five touchdowns and one interception as the Tar Heels put up 87 points over the past two weeks.