Maryland (2-0) is averaging 36:01 minutes of possession time and has allowed an average of just 175 total yards in its first two games. Granted, those came versus Villanova (31-14) and at Florida International (26-10). But if the Terps can control the ball, and thus the clock, against the Mountaineers while at least limiting WVU's big plays, it can upset a top five team on national television.
"They control the game with possessing the ball and limiting possessions," West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Both of their first two opponents had less than 60 plays. They are getting a lot of three-and-outs and the offense is staying on the field. That makes it hard when you don't have the ball. The defense has to create something, or the special teams. We have countered that in the past and this year already with our offense taking the game over. We have to do a good job of the offense getting some first downs and our defense getting off the field."
West Virginia (2-0) held Marshall to five of 15 third down conversions in its 48-23 road win last week. But its offense was limited to just three first downs in the opening half; it took just one drive to gain that many in the second, when it scored three touchdowns in each of the latter two quarters to record the 25-point win. WVU must be able to put together a complete game effort at Byrd Stadium, or Maryland's talent level – and the fact it returns its top seven receivers from last year – could easily lead the Terps to a third straight win to open the season.
Quarterback Jordan Steffey is highly regarded by UM head coach Ralph Friedgen, who is calling the plays as offensive coordinator for the second consecutive season. Steffey has passed for 154 yards per game and completed 37 of 50 passes (74 percent). He has thrown one interception against zero touchdowns, but that's more a product of Friedgen's tendency toward the power run game within the red zone than it is Steffey's inability.
"They were very high on him last year," Rodriguez said. "Now he has another year in the system. He is very athletic. We remember him from high school and watching some of the things he did. They do some quarterback runs with him and some of the things we do with our offense. They have two starting tailbacks. They'll mix (Lance) Ball and (Keon) Lattimore in there, so you have three guys who can run the ball pretty well. And they have one of the best wide receivers in the country in (Darrius) Heyward-Bey. He is very explosive and had a big game against us last year. They have tight ends that are huge, big targets. The offense is still Ralph's deal. He has his stamp on it and they make plays. They do a lot of the same things on defense. It looks similar on defense, but there are a few wrinkles here or there. They cause match-up problems."
It's a typical Maryland offense. The Terps will try to pound the ball in between the tackles first, then throw to the tight ends and wideouts after a defense has committed to the run. The success versus West Virginia has come on crossing routes, though Maryland turned the ball over in the first quarter last year and was down 28-0 before 15 minutes were played. If the Terps can avoid dropping the ball and stay in the game early facing a quick-strike offense, the crowd and environment will help push them. The one area that is a slight concern is special teams. Maryland gave up a kickoff return for touchdown last season to WVU's Darius Reynaud, and they have a new punter and place kicker in Travis Baltz (38.8 yard average with six punts inside the 20) and Obi Egekeze (2-3 FG; 2-2 inside 50 yards), respectively. Chris Roberts kicks off.
"They have always had very talented specialists," Rodriguez said. "These guys kicking now are talented. They cover well and have good schemes. The last few years we have been holding our own in that department, but the first few games they won the special teams battles against us."
West Virginia will not take the NCAA-mandated one day per week off until Friday. The short week forces WVU to drill Sunday through Tuesday at home before a Wednesday walk-through at Byrd Stadium. The short week also means that receiver Nate Sowers and linebacker Archie Sims will not be able to play because of hamstring injuries. Linebacker Bobby Hathaway is listed as day-to-day with a broken hand. If he plays, he will wear a club cast, as he has in practice. Defensive lineman Keilen Dykes is also considered day-to-day with a foot sprain. The staff said it would wait until Thursday to make a decision. Dykes will be a core part of the defense against Maryland, which averages linemen that are 6-3 and 320 pounds, one of the largest in the nation. Dykes' ability to tie up the center and guard will be a key to free the linebackers to make plays. WVU is healthy, but still sore and beat up, otherwise.
"They got big guys and they have always had big guys," Rodriguez said. "Dykes is our biggest guy. We have to play with great leverage because we are not that big up front. We have to have good technique and try to get off blocks. They are so big and the tight ends are so big they can swallow you up if you don't strain a little extra and use good leverage and good technique."
Rodriguez noted that the team will dial back on its physical practices this week due to the five-day turnaround. He said this is the toughest type of game for players. He would rather play every Saturday and play 12 in a row, as the Big Ten does. There is no advantage with WVU playing early and Maryland late on Saturday because both staffs did not bring in players until Sunday afternoon. As a side note, tight end Mike Villagrana played 44 snaps against Marshall, perhaps an all-time high for tight ends at WVU under Rodriguez.. He did not catch a pass, however. Owen Schmitt also lined up at tight end and played the majority of the game, proving his fitness.
Rodriguez reiterated that West Virginia has changed its signals every season and has up to three people and five different ways to signal in a play, so there should be no issues with sign thievery. It has been rumored that Maryland, with the transfer there of former WVU quarterback Scott McBrien, knew the Mountaineers' play before they ran it at times, helping the Terps win four consecutive games in the series.
West Virginia has won three straight, tying its longest stretch. The Mountaineers lead the all-time series 22-21-2 and can even their record to 11-11-1 at Byrd Stadium with a victory. After this game, the series will break for 2008 and '09 so Maryland can play a home and home series with California. WVU will face Colorado in a home and home and also play Auburn in those years.
"It is a very intense rivalry and a very physical football game," Rodriguez said. "I think it has been great for both fans because it is a close trip. It is always sold out whether it is at their place or our place. It has been a great series. There has always been a lot at stake. We always play them earlier in the year and it is a launch pad or spring board for the winning team to a good season."
Indeed, when West Virginia beats Maryland, it has compiled a 178-70-3 record (.715) and gone to 15 of its 26 bowl games – including a whopping eight straight and 13 of 15 in seasons with a win over UM. In years West Virginia has lost, it has reached postseason play just five times and has a 99-118-6 record (.457) with just six winning seasons. The Mountaineers have a lone losing season when they beat Maryland, that in 1977.
A quick start will again be important. WVU's 28-0 lead last year proved insurmountable, and it's early success in College Park in the 2005 game helped it hold off a late rally via a special teams miscue.
"It's important, particularly because of the crowd," Rodriguez said. "I know the crowd will be into it. It's a tough environment. If you make a couple plays early it keeps the crowd from getting too intense. We are a team that is a big rhythm team offensively. When we get in a rhythm it really helps us offensively. They like to control the ball and the possessions. And in this series, turnovers will probably always be the biggest key. Last year's game was a prime example. We got a few in last year's game and that was a key. In the (2004 Gator Bowl) they got one early. In this series it has been the feature deal."
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Rodriguez mentioned after the last game that he would explore the number of kicks taken in practice by Pat McAfee, who has hit a six-yard punt and missed one extra point, both coming in the opening win over Western Michigan. The junior has not kicked the ball with his usual force on kickoffs in either of the first two games. The coaching staff has decided to taper the number of practice kicks in response to possible leg fatigue.
"We are resting him a little bit more because he has been doing a lot of kicking," Rodriguez said. "We didn't let him kick much (Sunday). He will kick a little bit today and be ready by Thursday night."
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WVU will try to ease the freshmen into additional action, not only on special teams, but also offense and defense. Freshman tailback Noel Devine played in the offensive sets for much of the fourth quarter to spell a tiring Steve Slaton and was back on kickoffs. Brandon Hogan has also been in on special teams, along with Pat Lazear and Will Johnson.
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The East Carolina game has officially been changed to noon. It will be televised by ESPN or ESPN2.It will be the third of four consecutive Mountaineer games televised nationally on either ESPN or ESPN2.