Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen has prided himself on self-thought superiority in his style. The Terps run a pro-set offense with a traditional drop back passer that would make West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez hurl his clipboard, as well as a few expletives. They play a base defensive set with four down linemen who rush the passer and man blocks to free the linebackers, expected to make plays and confuse the quarterback; "They play games with them," WVU signalcaller Patrick White says.
Rodriguez tossed all that in favor of an innovative offense he invented in the 1990s and perfected of late. It revolves around a mobile athlete in the shotgun, one who can tuck it and run as well as throw. It requires speed and light linemen who can, via technique, conditioning and quickness, wear out bigger, stronger foes. Defensively, WVU takes tweener players and feeds them into two hybrid positions that might make Friedgen hurl his crab cakes, if he ever really hurled anything. The 3-3-5 is indeed an odd stack setup in the very sense of the word, one with quirks and quickness unmatched by many other schemes.
Yet it further evolved last year against Maryland. The West Virginia secondary delivered huge hits to Terrapin wideouts in the final series, drilling receivers on four consecutive plays that showed UM the Mountaineers could play physically as well
"They are very physical," Rodriguez said. "And if you play a physical team, you better be physical yourself, or you will get embarrassed."
So when these programs face off, it's a philosophical difference. When Friedgen had an early edge, winning the first four meetings by a combined 155-51, he gloated that Rodriguez's innovation was little more than a ‘pop-gun offense' that he wasn't sure could be played at a high Division I-A level. Maryland prided itself on out-powering West Virginia in past meetings, and Friedgen thought the Mountaineers would never be able to punch it in from inside the red zone.
Rodriguez answered with a roughneck running game that features a hard-edge (Friedgen would say ‘physical,' but it's also a mental approach) and two players – tailback Steve Slaton and fullback Owen Schmitt – that the Terps didn't want in their backfield. UM offered Slaton, only to later renege on the deal without even telling the Levittown, Pa. native. It informed Schmitt that it did not think he could play on this level.
"They had other recruits they wanted more than me, so they took them instead," Slaton said. "I committed for awhile and I felt that I had a home. It shows recruiting is nothing but a business. A reporter called and told me that I did not have my scholarship to Maryland. I called my recruiter and asked him about it. He said that was right.
"I would say (my excitement) is really, really high. I look forward to this game. This will be our first real test of the season and I think we come to play in night games. We come here to play football and we are excited. I want to show them what they missed out on. We pride ourselves on playing physical, so hopefully both teams bring it."
Schmitt, perhaps the most physical Mountaineer, also got a nose-thumbing, and told MSN last year after it came down to transferring from Division III Wisconsin-River Falls to WVU or UM that "the Maryland coach told me to stay at River-Falls and I didn't really like that, so West Virginia it was."
"I think they will see a little more intensity pickup as the week goes on," center Dan Mozes says of Slaton and Schmitt. "This will be something different because (Slaton) did not get to play much last year. We will see how they handle him."
The results are in on how Maryland handled Schmitt: it didn't. The bruiser ran for a team-best 80 yards with one touchdown and gains of 34, 19 and 13 yards. He also dented the first of three such mangled facemasks when he bounced off a Terp linebacker and pin-balled two others to setup a WVU score. The duo, dumped by Maryland, combined to produce one of the finest backfield tandems in college football last year.
"The coaches thought we might have something here," said Schmitt of the series where WVU, up just 21-19 with 8:19 left after a 21-7 lead, drove the ball in for a score to seal the win at Byrd Stadium. "I think that game showed that if we worked hard enough and tried hard enough that we could turn this year into something special."
West Virginia still spreads it, still runs the no-huddle, and it has watched that style be utilized by all four of the BCS champions from last year, including WVU itself. Maryland? It probably still hates the play, as there is little question both coaching staffs don't care for one another.
Rodriguez says he respects Friedgen, while the UM mentor said only that "after four years, maybe they are figuring out some of the things we do" following West Virginia's 31-19 dismantling of Maryland on its home field last year. Both coaches think their system is superior, and their energy for this game and its history has invigorated the players, and the fan bases as well.
"I think this game is up there with the Louisville and Pitt games," said Mozes, who had his first career start at center against UM just last year and yet has developed into a Remington candidate. "This is a game when we always come out and try to battle, us against them. They are the same old athletic Maryland team. They move well and get off blocks well. We have probably played the same caliber of teams so far so this will be a great game, a true test. I think we will be the first challenge for them, just like they will be for us. They are a great team and they'll show that Thursday."
The series is tied 21-21-2 all-time. Thus, to the winner goes the series lead.
"This has always been a rivalry," said senior linebacker Jay Henry, who recovered a fumble to seal the UM win last year. "My first couple years here they embarrassed us, really, in every phase of the game. It is always a physical game and they have a bunch of big physical guys so it will be fun." Said Schmitt: "This means excitement. This place is going to be rowdy and night games are always fun. Playing Maryland is always fun."
And it's always a test of many other aspects as well, from bowl-readiness (the team who won the last six meetings has been the team to finish better, while the loser did not even go to a bowl half of the time) to who can dish out punishment, to which team can best execute their style and force their will upon the other, WVU doing so via 300-plus rushing yards last season.
"Play physical," Rodriguez told him team right before the Maryland game last year. "Until you play us, you don't know how physical we are. That's how we live everyday.
"I know in our season it was a big game for us because he had a young team on the road in a tough environment and we got a lead and they came right back on us," Rodriguez said Sunday. "At 21-19 it was really tight and our guys responded well, taking a long drive down for a touchdown. It was watching our guys grow up right in front of us. I remember, when we were taking that drive down, thinking ‘Hey, these guys are responding like veterans.' That was a sign to me that we might be ok. We turned out to be ok."
This is, in short, a measuring stick game for both teams, from whose style is best to who effectively evaluates talent and who best prepares players and an entire program for all things football. It's also among the biggest non-conference regular season games ever for West Virginia under Rodriguez.
"It's a rivalry game for the people of West Virginia and the people of Maryland," White said. "I guess they don't get along too well. But I feel that anytime I step on the field with anybody. After the game, maybe we can talk. But before and during, I don't like other colors."