Credence To The Conviction?

There’s a distinct impression given that West Virginia’s defensive line feels quite confident with its assignment this weekend.

Which is either disconcerting or comforting, pending the angle one takes to analyze it. Maryland returns four starters along the line, including a 24-game starter at center in Sal Conaboy, a Rimington Award candidate for the nation’s best player at the position. The remainder of the interior line – guards Andrew Zeller and Silvano Altamirano – are solid, but combine for just nine career starts. Plus, the Terrapin line struggled to gain much traction against South Florida, as UM rushed for just 116 yards on 40 carries and was shutout in the second and third quarters.

Maryland, in fact, entered the fourth quarter trailing 17-14 after turning the ball over six times, and was aided by a blocked punt return for a score and a late field goal to gain the key road victory. Quarterback C.J. Brown was also under some duress despite Maryland having a pair of tackles in Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn that have each made 15 consecutive starts. Dunn’s elevation into a starting role as a sophomore has been especially impressive after earning a scholarship following a season as a preferred walk-on.

But in listening to West Virginia nose tackle Kyle Rose, it appears clear that the Mountaineers believe their front three can execute some of the base ideals of the odd front, which should open the linebackers to make plays. Rose and Christian Brown must be able to force a double team from Conaboy and one of the guards, and the bet here is Rose can accomplish that. He seems confident in his technique and the size/strength match-up, and Rose was excellent in the outing against Towson one week after he said he had a "feeling out" period against Alabama's interior three, which were very good against WVU in the rush game.

Brown, who plays in more passing situations, is a bit lighter and likely won’t need to force the double as much because of his more situation useage. Keep an eye on the inside play along both lines and see if Rose is indeed demanding two blockers, which defensive coordinator Tony Gibson deems as mandatory for his scheme to operate at peak efficiency. If that happens, the second level is much more free to fill the gaps as needed, and it will allow the typically third-level players, at least in terms of listing in a traditional 3-3-5, to get downhill in the box and finish plays.

Rose did indicate he felt there were some other things WVU could do, but wouldn’t elaborate. Among them, in my opinion, is the ability to limit the run. The line isn’t oversized, and they don’t swallow up defenders, as Alabama’s was doing to Rose early in the game. Too, the Terps will run some power, ad that plays to one of the strengths of the odd stack multiple set. They keys aren’t too terribly difficult to read in Maryland’s run game, either. See ball, get ball as the Terps go off tackle, run stretch, mix inn a dash of zone read with Brown and run other basic offensive operations.

Head coach Randy Edsall, who played quarterback at Syracuse from 1976-79 before spending his first decade of coaching there, hasn’t ever been extremely flashy on offense, but he will use timely misdirection out of the pro and, at times, two-back sets. The biggest issue for the Mountaineers might be locking into the backfield and being subject to an end around or plays that get the flow going one way before bringing an explosive player like Stefon Diggs or Deon Long in another direction.

Backs Brandon Ross and Wes Brown are steady, solid rushers, but don’t have exceptional breakaway speed. WVU also layers the odd stack very effectively so as to avoid giving up the big play. It was in its prime form against Alabama, when it forced the Tide to gain yardage in chunks rather than begin ripping off major yardage even with the Mountaineers tiring in the second half. Many Tide pundits expressed surprise at this, as even with backs like All-American T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry – who both went over 100 yards – were forced to work for the vast majority of their yardage.

Brown had 61 yards on 13 carries versus USF, while Ross had only 25 yards on six carries after multiple lost fumbles benched him. His replacement, Albert Reid – who had a brief flirtation with joining the Mountaineer program – garnered 34 yards on eight rushes. Those aren’t, again, exceptionally explosive plays, and the specialty of the odd stack is its ability to make foes drive the field in chunks, then tighten in the red zone.

West Virginia should also be able to bring some pressure on Brown, who has solid mobility, but has become erratic when flushed from the pocket. Brown has forced passes down the field, to the point where Edsall had to pull his quarterback aside for more private conversations about not forcing passes. If the front three, or four, or five – pending whom and from where Gibson decided to bring heat – can make Brown move his feet and not be set, while also keeping some contain and maintaining leverage, the Terrapins passing game will be much more limited even with a pair of preseason All-Big Ten talents.

Watch the downs, distances and situations in which Gibson decides to unleash the pressure, and from where the blitz comes. Also see if WVU’s linebackers are taking intelligent angles to the ball and, perhaps even more importantly, tackling well in space. This should happen within the run game up the middle. As long as ends Dontrill Hyman and Noble Nwachukwu, and back-up Eric Kinsey, can hold the point of attack and keep the blockers on the inside hip with a free arm to wrap – don’t get caught up in traffic, in other words – they should be able to, if not make a play, then spill the run game into players already filling gaps from the second level.

Also, check in on the sam linebacker position to see if Wes Tonkery plays and, if so, how many snaps? Back-up Isaiah Bruce is a proven commodity, but he isn’t a proven-of-late commodity. It might take Bruce a series or two to get into the flow, or to simply settle down enough. But his time on the field, in the past as a starter and as a reserve against Towson last week, should severely limit this adjustments. There’s no question the Maryland run game presents a significant challenge, especially with having to worry about a mobile quarterback.

But with the angles, and the increased awareness of taking the extra half second to play under control and actually finish plays against a quarterback, it seems West Virginia should be able to at least limit UM’s effectiveness on the ground. And that typically leads to longer distances on second and third downs. Get behind the chains, and the entire playbook opens for Gibson.

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