Head coach Ralph Friedgen will employ a brutal bam!-bash!-whack! offensive style Thursday, when the teams meet for the last time before the to-be 46-game series takes a two year break. It'll be nothing out of the ordinary – and exactly what No. 4 West Virginia is least equipped to face. The Mountaineers (2-0) could be without 6-5, 300-pound nose tackle Keilen Dykes, who suffered a sprained foot injury against Marshall and is currently listed as day-to-day. Dykes is at least two inches and 20 pounds heavier than any other defensive linemen WVU could play at nose, and none of them have the all-Big East senior's blend of technique, raw power and experience.
The four-year starter is key in holding the point of attack against opposing offenses so linebackers can make plays and strike at proper angles, a central theme to the success of the 3-3-5 odd stack. Dykes, who played tackle last season, was penciled into the spot this year before no other player was sound enough to start full-time at nose. He is the lone Mountaineer able to create stalemates with such centers as Marshall's Doug Legursky, a Rimington candidate, and Maryland's Edwin Williams, a 6-2, 326-pound junior whose 15 consecutive starts are tops on the Terp offense and a bane to opposing defenses.
If Dykes cannot play and West Virginia cannot hold the nose and keep at least the center – if not the center and one guard, as Dykes did – from getting to the second level and into the linebackers, Maryland could gash the Mountaineers all game. That's no joke and a perfect, two-faced recipe for success for Friedgen. UM can control the clock (it leads the nation in time of possession with an average of 36:01 per game), moving slowly down the field and racking up points while at the same time keeping WVU's explosive playmakers on the sidelines. It'll be the classic terrible trio Friedgen attack: a power running game behind tailbacks Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball mixed in with crossing patters and throws to the tight end and the occasional vertical threat (UM has its top seven wideouts back). If it reads like a doomsday scenario, it is. And West Virginia's trying to find a promethean solution to the problem.
"There are a lot of things going on on the field right now," defensive end James Ingram said. "We are changing things up some, repping more people in, looking for the mix. We are trying to keep rolling in. This game is really going to be based on how quick we can move and how fast we can get past them. Maryland always has a big, physical line. If we can stay low and keep leverage on them, we will be all right."
If Dykes cannot play, look for a mix of nose tackle by committee. Thor Merrow is the immediate backup, but at 6-1 and 250 pounds, even the toughest players have a headache after 30 snaps against players 70 pounds heavier. That's what he will be facing, with Williams, guards Andrew Crummey (6-5, 301 lbs.) and Jaimie Thomas (6-4, 339 lbs.) and tackles Dane Randolph (6-5, 312 lbs.) and Scott Burley (6-5, 324 lbs.), an average of 6-4.5 and 320 pounds. And behind Burley is 6-7 Bruce Campbell, though Bruce's waning time makes him less of a concern. It's not as though Merrow will have to contend with the tackles, but when WVU begins to roll its line – it played Scooter Berry and Johnny Dingle at the nose for snaps against Marshall – those players will then have run the complete gamut of the Terrapin front, one with deadshot blocking and the largest size it will face this season.
The solution, of now, is to use as many players as possible who can provide quality reps. Merrow is certainly one of them. He graded out at 85 percent versus the Herd and while the sophomore was at times shoved off the line, like when Marshall began to run power plays effectively at the start of the second half, he was up against Legursky, one of the finest centers in the nation. That, apparently, isn't much consolation.
"Last week, this week, they are both really good centers," Merrow said. "You have to have good technique. If you get high or anything, they can take advantage of it real quick. They are both sound players. It's a challenge. I'm going in 250 and they are weighing 315 or more. Yeah, they are a lot bigger. Every center I have seen was big. The Big East has big players. Maryland has big players and a big line, as they always do. But it really doesn't matter if I was 6-6 and 300 pounds. I would still use the same technique. Hopefully Dykes is coming back. If not, everyone has to come together and fit up."
It begs the question: Has Merrow ever wondered what he is doing in the midst of players weighing 70 more pounds and standing three inches taller?
"Have you seen me get off the field yet? If I thought that I'd get off the field," he said. "You don't look at it like that. I look at him as another player. I know how good he is from watching film on him. I know he is a great center, playing against him a couple snaps last year. But if you go out there looking at it like I am a lot smaller and lighter and he benches more than me, he has already defeated you. I am trying to get in his head and hit him first. … You know, a lot of people have had their doubts about me. You go out there and find out who is the toughest guy and who is going to play hard. I'll go after them every snap and play hard. I'll go against anybody. Big, small, fast, slow. Let's find out who is the toughest by the end of the game."
Berry and Dingle, at 6-2, 285 pounds and 6-3, 270 pounds, are a bit bigger than Merrow, but their movement to nose tackle obviously opens a hole at another slot. Berry is a solid tackle who locks up to plug the exterior line well, while Dingle's speed makes him a perfect edge rusher. Moving him inside eliminates some effectiveness from that attack. But that's better than getting split down the middle by the Terp tailbacks. When, or if, Berry slides to nose, Dingle would stay at end and Doug Slavonic or James Ingram would play tackle. If Dingle is at nose, it's likely a pass situation and WVU could slide linebacker Marc Magro into a down stance, leave Berry at tackle and, if need be, put Ingram on the field. Look for Ingram to see time anyway, as he has in the first two games, because of his speed and abilities at end. He and Marcus Broxie could provide Dingle rest on some series so he could play nose on others, if need be.
However WVU plays it, it will certainly become a two-faced match-up of West Virginia's defensive speed and angles of pursuit against Maryland's size and physicality.
"I like playing bigger linemen because I can use my quickness more," Ingram said. "It's more to my advantage. A quick lineman is more me-vs.-me. We are going and bashing each other. The bigger linemen, I can use my speed more and get around them. We need to get that pass rush going, and our ability to move will be key."
Also available would is Chris Nield, who is listed as the third-team nose tackle bot does have size at 6-3 and 305 pounds. He will almost certainly have to take snaps versus Maryland just so other players can man their normal slots. West Virginia might allow Neild and some others to play from the 20-yard line back to the 40 or 45, then insert what coordinator Jeff Casteel believes is their best lineup to solve the riddle from the midfield stripe on. It's not ideal, but it's also not cobbled together and does work to lessen snaps and keep players from wearing early in the third and into the fourth quarters. Don't be shocked if Casteel also does some matching and added blitzing with the linebackers and safeties to provide extra players for run support. Stuffing the ground game plus turnovers forced and given and third down conversion rates – which will increase of West Virginia can, indeed, limit UM's first down rushing success – will be the chief goals.
"We have to hang tough and play hard, fast and physical every play," Dingle said. "Every game is a challenged to me. I feel that's a big thing. If we can get six or seven three and outs, we should win the ball game. The big key is getting off the field on third down, though that's every week."
Maryland (2-0) has converted 13 of 29 third downs and rushed for an average of 178 yards per game. Those totals came against Villanova (31-14) and at Florida International (26-10), however, and the cavalier foes make the stats a bit skewed. It's certain that the Terrapins have not shown the vast majority of their playbook, so perhaps even the failure to score more than 16 points through three quarters – and more than 19 for the first 59 minutes of the game – against FIU could be overlooked. But this will be a challenge, and it will take a total team effort avoid a dark night and hush the sellout crowd in College Park.
"The biggest thing we have to do is keep them from getting into the flow offensively," said associate head and special teams coach Bill Stewart, who admits WVU might need to strike the balance between scoring as fast as it can and possessing the ball for added amounts of time. "How do you do that? Offensively, you keep the ball and score when you have it. That takes them out of their game plan. On special teams, phase II, you get a big play here or there or a score. That way, they have to come out of the game plan and rhythm and can't get into that methodically moving offense of two yards, three yards, eight yards, two yards. We need to have a big showing from our special teams to help our offense and, most importantly, our defense."