Know Your Foe - Maryland

In the first meeting between the two schools, Wisconsin looks to contain a Maryland offense capable of putting up big numbers while exploiting a defense that is susceptible to scores. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Terrapin Times publisher Dave Lomonico.

1, Quarterback C.J. Brown has played a lot of games for Maryland under center, but has struggled at points this season. What has been the reason that the sixth-year senior has been up and down?

Lomonico: Brown just seems to have lost his confidence throwing the football, and that can be attributed to a combination of factors. He’s been hit/pressured a lot during his career thanks to a somewhat shaky offensive line, and this year, more than during previous campaigns, there was talk of backup Caleb Rowe (who has since suffered a season-ending ACL injury) supplanting him in the lineup, even as head coach Randy Edsall publically backed Brown.

C.J. Brown has never had the strongest or most accurate arm, and for him to excel he needs to keep the defense honest with his feet running the zone read. With the pressure off, and when the O-line is holding up, he does much better spreading the ball around and giving his receivers a chance to make plays. He’s shown the ability to put the ball on the numbers and thread the needle, but just has never been able to do so consistently.

2, Describe Stefon Diggs’ game. What kind of receiver is he, how hard is he to match up against and how big a part of the offense is he for Maryland?

Lomonico: Diggs is perhaps the key skill-position cog in Maryland’s offense, the guy who makes the unit click, even when he’s not catching passes. Defenses are forced to account for him, as well as fellow wideout Deon Long, on every play, and that opens things up for the other receivers and conceivably the running backs.

Individually, Diggs is an all-around threat whose best qualities might actually be his want-to, toughness and will to win. The guy’s a true competitor, and when he’s challenged he typically rises to the occasion. Diggs may not be the tallest wideout out there (he’s 6-feet), and he may not be the fastest (he’s not a 4.3 burner), but when it’s him and a cornerback going up for the ball, he’s going to come down with it. And on a downfield throw, even if he’s not as fast as that cornerback, he’s going to out-run him.

It also helps that Diggs does the little things well (when he wants to). He’s a crisp route runner, has strong, soft hands, and isn’t afraid to range over the middle and pull down a pass in traffic. He’s also a willing blocker who actively works to seal the edge on pitch plays and the like.

3, Other than Diggs, who are some of the top skill position players on offense for Wisconsin to be aware of?

Lomonico: As I mentioned above, Deon Long is an elite threat and, like Diggs, should be selected in May’s NFL draft. Long isn’t quite as refined as Diggs, but he’s a big-play receiver who can take the top off the defense. Another wideout to keep an eye on is Marcus Leak, who has taken advantage of an opportunity after one UMD receiver went down with a torn ACL and another was suspended for the season. Leak is a sure-handed, fleet-footed No. 3 who has made plenty of plays when defenses pay too much attention to Long and Diggs.

Another emerging weapon of note is slot receiver Jacquille Veii, who is only a sophomore. He’s Maryland’s fastest, most dynamic offensive threat, and while he’s had some struggles with his hands, he possesses home-run hitting potential. Veii’s a shaker and mover, someone who creates yards in the open field.

In the backfield, starter Brandon Ross has flashed big-play potential, like when he had a 90-yard catch-and-run earlier this year. He’s not really a breakaway guy, and sometimes his filed vision/cutback ability is lacking, but he’s a solid running back. The most talented back, however, is Wes Brown, a big, physical runner who has enough explosiveness to bust it downfield. Brown isn’t always consistent, and he tends to run high (giving defenses a larger strike area), but he’s probably Maryland’s main big-play threat in the backfield.

4, What kind of defense does Maryland like to play and what are the units real strengths and weaknesses?

Lomonico: Maryland sits in a base 3-4, but defensive coordinator Brian Stewart throws plenty of different looks at offenses. In fact, you’ll probably only see the Terps sitting in a traditional 3-4 half the game, as they spend plenty of time in nickel and dime coverages, while also using a variety of odd-man fronts.

The strength of the defense, on paper, is the linebackers, though injuries have ransacked the unit this fall (all four of their Week 1 starters have missed at least one game this year). When healthy these guys make up the most reliable, consistent unit on the defense (and they should all be ready to go this weekend). The two inside backers, Cole Farrand and LA Goree, are blue-collar types who tackle well and rarely allow leaky yardage. They’re not the fleetest of foot, but they’re heady players who actively fill gaps and get off blocks well. Outside linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil is a potent pass rusher and edge setter, while fellow OLB Matt Robinson may be the most important piece on the defense with his ability to cover receivers/tight ends and also track down backs in the open field.

Three more players worth noting are nose tackle Darius Kilgo, defensive end Andre Monroe and cornerback Will Likely. Kilgo won’t shine in the stat book, but he’s an active interior linemen who eats up blocks and frees up the linebackers. Monroe, meanwhile, is the team’s best pass rusher and all-around defender. He’s always in the backfield wreaking havoc, or running down the line to catch backs on the edge. Likely is a true lockdown cornerback and playmaker. He’s been beat a couple times this year, but he has a knack for finding the football and making things happen when teams throw at him.

As for weaknesses, the Terps are thin up front since starting defensive end Quinton Jefferson went down with a season-ending injury. Maryland now plays backup nose tackle Keith Bowers at end, and while he’s athletic, he can get pushed off the ball. On the back end, Maryland has two solid safeties in Anthony Nixon and Sean Davis, but neither has excelled in pass coverage this year. Davis is a true downhill thumper, while Nixon tackles well in the open field, but they’ve given up their share of big plays over the top. The second cornerback spot has also been a concern. Week 1 starter Alvin Hill, who is now injured, has had his issues shadowing his man down the field, allowing several receivers to take him to task. And No. 3 corner J.J. Johnson has been adequate, but can get caught flat-footed from time to time. He has trouble recovering when wideouts get a step on him.

5, Linebacker Lorne Goree ranks among the conference leaders in tackles per game. Is that a product of him having a nose for the football or the defensive line struggling in front of him?

Lomonico: More than anything, it’s Goree having a nose for the football and just doing his job filling the gaps as an inside linebacker. While not a sideline-to-sideline guy, Goree is fairly fleet of foot, scrapes well, and makes solid form tackles, both in traffic and in space. At the same time, since Maryland does only play three down linemen, running backs do tend to squirt out to the second level. The Terps’ run defense hasn’t been as effective compared to past years, and some of that falls on the front three or four.

6, What caused West Virginia and Ohio State to put gaudy offensive numbers against the Terps and how has the coaching staff tried to correct these issues?

Lomonico: Some of that is WVU and OSU run rather complicated spreads predicated on misdirection plays, options and the like. Maryland’s defense, which was forced to play several young backup linebackers due to injuries to the starters, tended to over-pursue plays and didn’t react properly. Sometimes WVU’s pure speed and athleticism were just too much for the Terps’ defenders to handle, but a lot of it came down to UMD’s lack of field awareness and faulty fundamentals. And you have to give credit the Mountaineers and Buckeyes too. These are two primetime offenses we’re talking about, and they’re tough for most defenses to deal with. Simply put, those two teams just had more playmakers than the Terps could handle.

To correct the issues, the staff really emphasized fundamentals during the bye week. Hand placement, tackling form, leverage -- these were all stressed to the Terps’ front seven. UMD can’t lapse in the little things like basic technique and expect to stop their more potent opponents.

7, Maryland is first in the conference in punt return average. Why has that unit been so dynamic this season?

Lomonico: Punt returner Will Likely makes plays at corner, and he makes plays returning punts too. The diminutive Florida native is just a force, plain and simple. You’re not going to see him put up blazing times in the 40-yard dash, but he’s so quick and slippery, he can slip through small windows and make people miss in the open field. Moreover, he has very good downfield acceleration and can turn on the afterburners once he gets free. The blockers deserve credit as well, and their ability to spring Likely is a direct result of head coach Randy Edsall’s emphasis on special teams.

8, It’s still early, but how do you think Maryland is adapting to the Big Ten? What have been some of the biggest challenges?

Lomonico: To tell you the truth, the Big Ten hasn’t been all that different from the ACC thus far. The personnel and philosophies are different, but both conferences seem to have their share of top-notch, national contenders, as well as a few bottom feeders working to get back to respectability. Maryland, which was a mid-level ACC team, looks to be a mid-level Big Ten team from what we’ve seen so far.

The main challenge is clearly going to be developing depth, especially up front. Teams like Ohio State clearly have more bodies to rotate through on the offensive and defensive lines, and that takes its toll on a team like Maryland that only goes seven deep on the O-line and four or five deep on the D-line.

9, Where do you think the Terps have the edge over the Badgers? Where do you Wisconsin has the edge?

Lomonico: Maryland probably has more team speed, specifically on offense, than Wisconsin. The Badgers don’t seem to have many playmakers at receiver, whereas the Terps have three or four wideouts who can make defenses pay.

Wisconsin looks to have an edge in a few key areas, however, namely in the trenches. Wisconsin may not be as deep on the O-line as in past years, but the Badgers have five returning starters and still have more bodies rotating through than UMD. Their running backs, with 1,000-yard rusher Melvin Gordon shouldering the load and a potent Corey Clement as the No. 2, have a distinct advantage over Maryland’s backfield, which is averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry.

Defensively, Wisconsin ranks among the nation’s best in most major statistical categories, so the Badgers figure to have an edge there as well. The Terps have some talent on that side of the ball, but it looks like Wisconsin has been more consistent thus far. If Maryland plays to its potential, and enters the game healthy, the defenses could be a wash, but at first blush you have to give the Badgers an edge.

10, What is the one thing Maryland needs to do well in order to win Saturday? Prediction?

Lomonico: The Terps have to control the clock by establishing the running game and not turning the ball over. The offensive line has to step up its game and open wide enough holes for Brandon Ross and Wes Brown to grind out tough yards inside. Moreover, quarterback C.J. Brown has to open things up by running the zone read, while connecting on his short to intermediate throws, which will allow UMD’s playmakers a chance to make something happen. If the Terps can move the ball and keep the ball out of Melvin Gordon’s hands, they could make a game of it. Of course, that’s asking a lot of a Terps offense that has been up and down all season. Prediction: Wisconsin 34, Maryland 17.

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