WVU defensive front vs. UM offensive line
We usually like to focus on individual matchups, but this unit face-off is so important that it couldn't be ignored. Maryland's massive offensive front, averaging nearly 320 pounds per man, is likely eyeing WVU's undersized, understaffed defensive line like a hungry man contemplates a pork chop. And even though the Terp offensive line suffered some unexpected losses prior to the season, its sheer size makes it problematic for the Mountaineer front three.
What can West Virginia do to avoid being swallowed whole, as occurred during Maryland's four-game winning streak between 2001-03? The Mountaineers will have to be very active up front, get into gaps quickly and not allow the Terp offensive line to lock them up. They will have to break blocks and move quickly, and try to use superior technique to get away from their foes. But it's not going to be an easy task, especially if senior leader Keilen Dykes is unable to play. For the past few years, WVU has avoided injuries at positions where it could not afford them. This year, it has hit them squarely in the teeth.
If you think all this "games are won and lost in the trenches" is overrated, then chew on this. Many people attribute Maryland's dominance during the early part of the decade to knowledge of WVU's offense due to quarterback Scott McBrien, who transferred when he couldn't take the heat of the Mountaineer way. However, McBrien didn't help Maryland's offense with any great insight into the West Virginia defensive system. It was a massive and talented offensive line that paved the way for those victories – a scenario that the Terrapin coaching staff is hoping to repeat.
WVU running game vs. UM linebacker Erin Henderson
Although the Mountaineers will certainly have to block Henderson to make their running game go, that's not the only matchup that bears watching when West Virginia tries to move the ball on the ground against a so-far stingy Terp defense.
When the zone read was first installed at WVU, the reads were fairly straightforward. The quarterback watches the defensive end, and if he stays wide, hands it to the superback. If he crashes down, the QB keeps it and runs outside. That's a simplification of course, as there were various differences depending on the defensive front and scheme, but with the assignments of the day it was not as complex as it is now. Why? Because defenses have adjusted, and are playing their own games to mess up the reads. Defensive ends might crash down, only to have a linebacker fill the outside to take away the QB keep. Tackles and ends might stunt not to put pressure on the quarterback in the pocket, but to confuse blocking schemes and give a false read. Add in blitzing corners and safeties playing tighter than Christina Aguilera's pants, and there are many more tactics to be accounted for.
In Thursday night's game, watch how Maryland uses Henderson. Will they scheme up front to keep him free to run to the ball, or will they commit him aggressively to the line of scrimmage in order to clog running lanes? And if so, will West Virginia be able to exploit the areas he leaves vacant in the passing game? WVU will also likely try to use Henderson's speed against him. The end around and reverse are staples of the WVU attack, but it wouldn't be surprised to see more plays that move back against the flow in order to slow Henderson's outstanding pursuit skills.
On WVU's side, the spotlight will be on Patrick White. He will have to read the defense and make split second decisions in order to help the running game get untracked. Many times, that factor is overlooked by some, who believe that handing the ball off is a break for the QB. In West Virginia's offense, it might call for more decisions that dropping back to pass does.
THINGS TO WATCH
Like West Virginia, Maryland uses a hybrid defensive position that is a bit unusual, but it combines two different positions than the spur does at WVU. Maryland's "Leo" has the abilities of both a defensive end and an outside linebacker – something in the mold of the rush end utilized by Don Nehlen, and so ably played by Canute Curtis at West Virginia a decade ago.
Watch how the Terps use the Leo, currently manned by Trey Covington. He can line up either on or off the ball, drop into pass coverage or join the pass rush. He, like Eric Wicks to WVU, is one of the linchpins of the defense, and if he plays well the Terps have a much better chance of slowing the Mountaineer offense.
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Both Western Michigan and Marshall attacked WVU's pass defense with vertical routes, although not necessarily ones that went deep down the field. Both teams go their tight ends into vacant areas in the middle of the field on occasion. Watch for Maryland to pick up on that tactic, but the Terps are also quite likely to use numerous crossing patterns when they throw the ball. Watch Maryland's tight ends, as they will likely run more than a few drag routes across the width of the field. Crossing routes from a wide receiver coming late across the middle, or a slot receiver using another receiver as a pick, are also Terp favorites.
West Virginia has struggled to cover these patterns in the past, so look for an emphasis on deep drops by the Mountaineer linebackers in order to force shorter throws from quarterback Jordan Steffy.
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There's not much love lost between these two coaching staffs, and with the series going on hiatus for two years (with what amounts to a lame excuse by the Maryland administration) the intensity on the field figures to be even higher than normal for a WVU-UM game. Keep an eye out for early skirmishes or other indicators of trash talk and flaring emotions. The squad that can keep a lid on them could have a bit of an advantage in the last meeting of the teams until 2010 – and given the volatility of scheduling these days, there's no guarantee that the teams will meet even then.
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In a game in which power could figure greatly, Owen Schmitt could be a key. The big guy hasn't gotten many touches in WVU's first two games, and this could be just the time to spring a few fullback traps and inside runs, especially if Maryland concentrates on stopping the quarterback sweeps that West Virginia used to pound Maryland into submission.