WVU centers Dan Mozes and Jeremy Hines vs. Maryland nose tackle Conrad Bolston
While many people focus on Terp middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, he's not the only story of the Terrapin defense. In the middle of the line, Bolston does a lot to keep the Terrapin star free to roam and make plays.
Making this matchup all the more intriguing is the possible shuffling of Mozes and Hines between center and guard. Head coach Rich Rodriguez and offensive line coach Rick Trickett are trying to get better productivity from their interior linemen, and believe that a switch of the pair from their preseason positions might be the way to go.
Is this the game, however, to make such a move? Mozes got only a couple of series at center against Wofford, and it might be nice for him to have more game experience there before taking on a Maryland defense that is very good. Will he be ready for all the nuances of center play? And if Hines retains the task, can he control Bolston so that his teammates can get out and make blocks on Jackson, or occasionally scrape off and put a hit or two on the Maryland star himself? This is an excellent battle to watch. If Jackson ends up with double figure tackles again, it's likely because Bolston had a good day tying up the Mountaineer offensive line.
WVU punter Phil Brady vs. Maryland punt returner Jo Jo Walker
It seems as if there's always a player or two singled out for abuse by a certain segment of Mountaineer fans, and Brady has certainly been that choice over the past year.
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That said, Brady is certainly facing a tough challenge in the form of Walker. While WVU nemesis Steve Suter is long gone, Walker is a shifty, quick return man with the ability to break coverage and make a big play on a return. Rodriguez noted that the goals of the WVU punt team remain the same – kick the ball on our outside the numbers, make the return man go a long way to get to the ball, then pin him against the sideline to help make the tackle.
Despite plenty of knee-jerk reactions about the unconventional nature of WVU's punt game, the fact is that it is achieving some of those goals. Only two of West Virginia's 11 punts have been returned so far this year, and while the kicks themselves haven't been works of art, they have, for the most part, been successful.
The pressure is on Brady to get kicks more consistently on the numbers and avoid the really disastrous kick that has plagued him in recent seasons. No one wants to make that improvement more that he does, and if he can take that next step against the Terps, he will have removed one of their more dangerous weapons.
WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez vs. Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen
Think there's not bad blood between these two guys? Think again. Both, at various times in the past, have taken subtle shots at the other, and there's not much doubt that neither is on the other's Christmas card list.
The important issue in this matchup is for Rodriguez to refrain from making the game into a personal battle. It's not about whose offensive and defensive schemes are the most innovative, or which coach is perceived to be a genius. It's about staying under control, making adjustments, and managing the game without making a serious blunder. Friedgen, like many veteran coaches, has the advantage of experience in achieving these goals, but the view here says that Rodriguez is learning quickly. If the Mountaineer mentor can keep everything on a business as usual approach, his young team should have a better chance to come up with a win.
THINGS TO WATCH
In past years under Friedgen, Maryland has attacked WVU's 3-3-5 defense like no other team. Terp crossing routes and zone flood plays have put the Mountaineer defense on its heels in several contests, and resulted in open receivers and big plays for the Terrapins.
West Virginia can counter this year with a couple of revamped defenses geared to stop the pass, but in the end, it still comes down to executions. Mike Lorello and Eric Wicks will be key pass defenders this week, as both will likely see a steady diet of wide and slot receivers crossing their areas of the field. How WVU combats those tactics will be a big factor in its defensive performance.
One other threat to keep in mind is Terp tight end Vernon Davis. He's already caught eight passes this year, and that's a position that the Mountaineers don't typically have to pay a lot of attention to in their game plan. Keep an eye on how WVU covers the athletic Davis, who poses huge matchup problems for most opponents.
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Not much attention is paid to Maryland defenders not named D'Qwell Jackson, but it certainly should. The Terps are fielding a defensive squad that could be very good, despite its average numbers to date.
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If there's one place this game will be decided, it will likely be in the trenches when West Virginia has the football. If WVU can improve on its average line play of the first two weeks, the Mountaineers will have a good chance of running its record to 3-0. However, it Maryland controls the line of scrimmage and keeps WVU's running game bottled up, it's going to be very difficult to come home with a win.
In addition to the battles on the interior line we've already discussed, keep an eye on West Virginia's blocking in the intermediate zone (3-7 yards downfield). Are linemen getting out to the backers or are they being held up? Do lead blockers get clean shots at linebackers and making them stick, or are the defenders defeating the blocks and getting into the ball carrier's face early in the play? If you don't watch anything else off the ball, watch this. It's going to be the key.
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A final item to keep an eye on is the emotional level of the Mountaineers. Past teams facing Maryland have been jacked up in pregame, only to crash when things didn't go their way at some point in the game. WVU, while obviously ready for the Syracuse game, didn't get overhyped, and certainly didn't lose its cool when it fell behind 7-0 after dominating play in the first half. Should similar adversity befall the Mountaineers this weekend, their demeanor and approach to it could be one of the most important factors as they attempt to rally.