WVU defensive line vs. Maryland offensive line
The Maryland offensive line averages 6-5 and 316 pounds. The West Virginia defensive line checks in at 6-4 and 277 pounds. Big guys all, but the scales certainly tip toward the Terps in this critical matchup.
While heights and weights don't always tell the story of success and failure, the difference in size between these two units is worth watching. West Virginia's trench warriors will be giving up almost 40 pounds per man to the tall and wide Maryland offensive front – an advantage that past Terrapin teams have exploited to the fullest. With quarterback Sam Hollenbach being restricted to safer, shorter throws, look for Maryland to try to wear down the smaller WVU defensive front with repeated runs. It will also be interesting to see if Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen sticks to a plan of wearing down the West Virginia line even if the running game isn't productive early.
West Virginia will likely counter with a rotation of linemen to try to keep fresh. The unexpected addition to that rota is defensive tackle James Ingram, who has played respectably in WVU's first two games of the season. However, the talent of the opposition in this contest is certainly several steps above that offered by Marshall and Eastern Washington, so all eyes should certainly be on the battle in the trenches during the first couple of series.
Both sides have been very productive, so something has to give in this face-off between West Virginia's solid returners and Maryland's booming booter.
West Virginia hasn't broken a long return yet this year, but the Mountaineers are averaging a healthy 8.2 yards per runback – which is almost like an extra first down on each possession. Lewis, of course, showed his ability to go the distance last year with his key punt return for a score against East Carolina, which proved to be the deciding points in that game. WVU's two-return man approach can also cause some coverage issues for opponents, as it gives the Mountaineers the ability to get to punts more quickly and begin a return. It also provides an extra blocker close to the return man.
In Podlesh, the Terps have an under-recognized yet highly valuable weapon. He is averaging 44.8 yards per attempt, and only one of his six boots to date have been returned. He is second all-time on Maryland's career punting average list, and could claim the top spot if he continues on his current pace.
Podlesh not only booms the ball far, but also gets good height and placement on his kicks, which allows his coverage team a better chance to get in position to limit return yardage. Maryland has yielded just 15 yards on punt returns this year – and much of the credit for that goes to Podlesh's accuracy and consistency.
Should a WVU return man break free, beating Podlesh won't be an easy task. He ran a 4.44 40-yard dash during spring testing.
WVU linebackers vs. Maryland tight ends Joey Haynos and Dan Gronkowski
This isn't an extension of the Terp offensive line vs. West Virginia defensive front in item one, although it certainly could be. Rather, we look at the role of tight ends against WVU's odd stack defense – specifically their effectiveness in the passing game.
For whatever reason, West Virginia has trouble covering those sorts of patterns. Whether its alignment or recognition problems (see last year's Maryland game, when Vernon Davis scored a 73-yard touchdown), lack of speed, or simply the fact that everything can't be defended at once, the fact is that foes can gain yardage by targeting that area of WVU's pass coverage. The question is, can they do it often enough to secure a win?
One of West Virginia's overriding defensive philosophies is not to get beaten deep – don't give up the big play. That's preached even more this year, with an explosive offense that figures to top 30 points per game in many of its contests. Make other teams work to score, force a mistake now and then, and it may be impossible for opponents to match WVU's offensive output.
Of course, that can be frustrating for fans at times, especially when tight ends maneuver past defenders for good gains. The thing to remember, though, is this. How many times did a tight end or crossing receiver make a catch, and for how many yards? Can they do it four or five times per drive to match similar length runs by Steve Slaton or Owen Schmitt when the Mountaineers score?
Maryland is certain to complete some passes to its big tight end targets under the lights on Thursday night. Whether it can exploit this "hole" in the WVU defense enough to come out with a win is another matter entirely.
THINGS TO WATCH
West Virginia's cornerback rotation is certainly on the mind of the Mountaineer coaching staff this week. With Larry Williams missing half of the Marshall game and almost all of the Eastern Washington contest with a hip sprain and back problems, the WVU secondary is thinner that hospital tissues. If Williams can't play, corners Antonio Lewis and Vaughn Rivers will get the starts, and although both are capable, there is an endurance factor to be considered.
In addition to their defensive duties, the pair is WVU's primary return men on both punts and kickoffs. That workload, piled on top of playing every snap at corner, is too much to expect of anyone, so West Virginia must get at least one, and hopefully two, backups ready to take some snaps against the Terps. Freshmen Guesly Dervil and Boogie Allen got a lot of time against EWU, and it appears that Dervil might have a bit of an edge on Allen at the moment. However, that doesn't mean that either is ready to go against an ACC foe that, despite its recent downturn, is miles better than either of WVU's first two opponents.
WVU also has the option of putting someone else, such as Jeremy Bruce, or perhaps even Steve Slaton, back to return kicks. That option doesn't appear as likely, but it would be one more way to steal a few more plays of rest for what could quickly become the most overworked tandem on the field.
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After two consecutive cruise-control victories, will West Virginia be prepared to play hard from the opening whistle? The coaching staff has been reinforcing that idea all week, because the Mountaineers can't afford to let the visiting Terrapins get off to a good start due to a lackadaisical effort.
While words of warning about playing as hard as possible from the get-go would seem easy to heed, sometimes it can be difficult to change the mode from the last game to the current one, and there's no doubt that the EWU game was more of a scrimmage in the second half than it was a hotly contested battle. WVU has to find a way to come out of the tunnel with more smoke than the special effects crew uses during pre-game introductions.
WVU's effort in any game over the past couple of years has been above reproach, so this probably isn't a huge concern. A primetime night game televised coast-to-coast has a way of elevating everything from adrenaline levels to heart rates, so it would be a surprise to see West Virginia come out flat. However, every team is different, and this is the first time that WVU will need to go from coast mode in one game to full speed ahead in the next.
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With the free substitution patterns of the first two games behind it, West Virginia figures to show a much shallower participation chart in this game. Although head coach Rich Rodriguez has noted that he wants to play more players in each contest, those intentions often get pushed aside in the urgency to keep the best players of the field as much as possible. However, as youngsters develop, they need to get playing time as well, thus making for an interesting, if vexing, issue for the coaching staff.
A handful of players that seemed to be poised for more time may or may not see that realized against the Terps, but it should be interesting to see how they are utilized. On offense, watch for wide receivers Wes Lyons (4) and Carmen Connolly (26). On defense, does linebacker Barry Wright (46) get more than third-down pass rushing cameos? Does Johnny Holmes (1) play any at spur, sliding Eric Wicks over to bandit (that hasn't been the case so far). Is it Dervil or Allen as the first sub at corner if Larry Williams can't go (see above)? Does linebacker Jay Henry continue to see less time in favor of Marc Magro and Reed Williams (47)? Any one of these story lines is an interesting one in itself – put them all together and you have a veritable witches' brew of possibilities.