Can West Virginia bottle Maryland's run game to put extra pressure on new starting quarterback Caleb Rowe?

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Maryland is a team in the midst of transition, trying to break in a new quarterback and pair of wideouts while relying on a ground game that has been both productive and plodding. So how do the Terps attack a West Virginia defense coming off an at-times sluggish performance?

Despite the changes across collegiate football, Randy Edsall remains at heart a power football coach. Maryland would rather run than pass, and it has plenty of incentive to do so. In backup-turned-starting quarterback Caleb Rowe's five quarters f play, he’s thrown five picks on 37 pass attempts. He’s completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, and threw for four scores last week in the win over South Florida, the most by a Maryland quarterback in four years.

But that doesn’t come close to offsetting the poor throws, reads and decisions of the junior. When Rowe was inserted into the fourth quarter in an effort to jumpstart the offense in the loss to Bowling Gree, he threw two interceptions in three passes, one a bad overthrow. Last week, at home, Rowe was mediocre, hitting some big plays on the outside and playing intelligently in taking the check down at times, but also forcing balls in the intermediate game and making bad reads on a solid, though not spectacular, secondary.

Frankly, Maryland’s in trouble if Rowe’s forced to throw against the Mountaineers. Rowe hasn’t truly experienced WVU’s odd stack schene, with its multiple layers, ability to disguise pressure and the secondary talents of Karl Joseph, K.J. Dillon, Terrell Chestnut and Daryl Worley. Coordinator Tony Gibson admitted he was discouraged with the effort at times, and Brain Mitchell said Worley allowed an easy vertical release on one big play against Liberty simply because he relaxed for a moment. It’s not fine, but it can be understood, if not agreed with, at times against lesser foes. But this week, as Don Nehlen as noted, will come out, Maryland might bust through the walls to get at West Virginia, but might also melt down with a couple early scores by the Mountaineers.

So how does Edsall handle Rowe, and the odd stack defense? First, the Terps are going to pound on the ground, and give Rowe some easy, short stuff to settle him in. Maryland would do well to relay upon backs Brandon Ross and Wes Perry, who are both averaging more than five yards per carry, and try to ride a solid offensive line and control pacing and clock. The UM front has yet to allow a sack all season, though that doesn’t mean both Rowe and former starter Perry Hills haven’t been rushed and flushed. Rowe has forced bad balls even sans pressure, and it seems like he should have a bit more of that this weekend.

Check the action early to see what Edsall is giving Rowe, and how he’s trying to attack within the run game. Maryland ran some read option with Hills, but Rowe doesn’t have that mobility, and he’s a far lesser threat to make plays outside the pocket. That means the Mountaineers have some added freedoms within the blitz game, and might be more willing to send an additional player and not have someone tracking the quarterback if he escapes pressure.

Maryland’s biggest threat is if it back starts gaining four and five yard chunks on the ground. That’s a difficult assignment because of how well the stack can perform against the run as long as Kyle Rose can hold the middle versus Maryland center Evan Mulrooney and guards Mike Minter and Andrew Zeller. Maryland’s line averages 308 pounds, which ranks first in the Big Ten East, and second behind only Wisconsin in what was once a very run-heavy league. This is, certainly, the “biggest” test for WVU thus far this season, both in size and talent.

If Maryland can control Rose at the nose, it can prime the pump with the power game, getting Ross (5-10, 210 pounds) going downhill behind another blocker and start to loosen the interior of West Virginia’s 3-3-5. It’ll be interesting early to also eye Jared Barber, who now not only comes off a long stretch of not playing because of injury, but also hasn’t seen a live snap in three weeks. That interior battle for both teams looms large, and will likely be the barometer for the success of the run game, as it doesn’t appear Maryland has the speed to beat the Mountaineers on the outside. It also can’t freeze the ‘backers with much of a zone read threat because of Rowe’s mobility.

Maryland’s best attribute, after its power run, is the ability to work off play action. It’s where the offense picks up a sizeable amount of its yardage, and where Rowe seems most comfortable. One of their favorite plays, and it gets Rowe an easy throw with a wideout coming across the face off the defense, is a twins right, single receiver left set with a pair of backs. Rowe will fake the hand to either Ross or Brown, while the single receiver runs vertical in an effort to clear that side. The twins both run crossing routes at varying depths, giving Rowe a good look and options on multiple levels of the defense.

The Terrains will attack vertically with no safety help on this play, and UM has found some younger talent that it believes will bolster the pass game in true freshman D.J. Moore and sophomore Taivon Jacobs. Moore scored his first career touchdown against Bowling Green, and made his first start last week against USF. He currently leads the Big Ten in yards per catch at 18.7, but has yet to truly excel at crisp route running and mastering the more finite tricks of the trade. Asking him to routinely beat the ability of West Virginia’s secondary is the proverbial uphill battle. Jacobs is more polished, and is likely going to be the workhorse this season; he caught eight passes for 107 yards versus USF.

The idea on the play, along with the vertical threat and some easy, across-the-middle throws for Rowe, is to vacate the left side of the field so that a back can get into the flats as a check down option. That’s another easy throw, and if Maryland can get Brown and Ross into what are likely one-on-one situations, a broken or missed tackle could result in a solid gain. It’s one of the trademark plays for Edsall, giving Rowe options against all three levels of the defense in a safe way.

The obvious counter is to handle the back with a single player who makes sure tackles, and allow Chestnut and Worley to cover man-to-man on the outside. That brings Joseph down into the box, and gives help on the deeper cross, while the linebackers handle the midlevel route. That leaves Worley on an island, but at some point your players are going to have to win individual battles. So, remember to keep an eye on the line play for both teams early. This is a staple of every game, but perhaps no more so than with WVU’s next two foes in Maryland and Oklahoma. Pay particular attention to the inside, and the play of Rose and Barber, then see how comfortable Rowe is with getting into the correct calls, and how he fares against a different look. How’s his footwork? Is he antsy in the pocket? Is he recognizing post-snap coverages and movements, and showing the ability to adjust?

West Virginia truly hasn’t pressured that effectively this season, but I’d expect it to be dialed up some on passing third downs. Can Rowe handle the rush, and find the downfield windows? How does Maryland’s run game stack up, and are the Terps able to stay ahead of the chains with the multiple levels and attack angles of the stack?

On the flipside, and we’ll be quick here, Maryland has generated quite a bit of a pass rush out of its new 4-3 look, butt that might allow Skyler Howard additional downfield opportunities. The Terrapins are almost a flipped version of WVU in that they rank near the bottom of the FBS in pass efficiency defense, but are near the top in sacks. It goes to show pressure isn’t everything in this game, especially out a base look often recognized and attacked by opposing quarterbacks. Check out defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who leads UM with 4.5 sacks and was a four-star player. The rangy 6-2, 255-pounder will switch sides of the alignment, but seems primed to battle freshman Yodny Cajuste at left tackle. Senior Marquis Lucas mans the other side. Watch to see how Cajuste handles the assignment, and how comfortable Howard is with that backside pressure. If he escapes, plays with his legs are imminent.

And now, to perhaps the biggest of questions for this game, how much does West Virginia punt to William Likely, and how willing are the Mountaineers to test Nick O’Toole’s directional kicking, and Likely’s excellence in returns. Likely was bottled against USF last week, managing just two returns for a combined 22 yards. That’s a solid stat line, but not one that Likely, who already has a pair of returns for scores, considers his norm. This is an obvious battle, and one to watch in terms of if WVU kicks it out of bounds, etc.

The other is on kickoff, and how West Virginia handles Maryland there. O’Toole has said he’s going to try and kick it as deep as possible, so we will see how much boom he can stick on the ball, and what the hang time, coverage lanes and ability to swarm look like. No foe has gotten a return past the 25-yard line this season against the Mountaineers, but the thought here is UM – which is hopefully returning multiple kickoffs – breaks at least one past the 30 to 40.

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