Well, the 2012 Virginia football season is quickly falling apart. Four straight losses, including 3 blowouts, have caused uproar among the fans, and negated pretty much all the momentum gained during last season.
If the Hoos are going to turn things around, this would be a good week to start. The opponent is a Maryland team which, despite its 3-2 (1-0 ACC) record, doesn't look any better than the Hoos. At least on paper. The Terps have beaten William and Mary, Wake Forest, and Temple. Not exactly a who's who of football powerhouses.
Maryland is a rival game and it is homecoming weekend, so fan support should be high despite the losing streak. The Hoos could probably use the energy in the stadium to help keep their spirits high.
Virginia on Offense
For the most part, the Hoos problem this year hasn't been offense. Or, at least, it hasn't been moving the ball. Scoring points has been a problem, but that has largely been due to penalties and turnovers. The Hoos are 119th in turnover margin. Luckily, the Terps are 115th. The Hoos are 45th in the nation in total offense, but just 91st in scoring offense. That's what happens when you turn it over 3 times a game.
The Hoos have also had trouble running the ball, which is a problem when the offense is based on a power rushing game. The Hoos rank 95th in the country in rushing yards, and 25th in passing yards. Not exactly a balanced attack. That has been better in recent weeks, as the Hoos have rushed for over 160 yards in each of the past 2 games.
This improvement comes at a good time, because Maryland boasts the #7 rushing defense in the nation. Their total defense also ranks 7th. This team faced the powerhouse West Virginia offense (ranked #3 nationally, with 570 ypg) and held them to just 363 total yards. Maryland's defense ranked near the bottom last year (111th in rushing defense, 108th in total defense), but they suffered a number of defensive injuries.
This year, with the hiring of new defensive coordinator, formerly of the University of Houston and the Dallas Cowboys, Maryland has switched to a 3-4 defense, modeled on the one the Cowboys run. Cavalier fans will recognize this defense, because it is very similar to what we ran under Al Groh.
A 3-4 defense is best when there is a playmaker at DE who can command constant double teams (see: Long, Chris) and can pressure the QB on his own. For Maryland, that player is senior Joe Vellano. Vellano is currently 2nd on the team in tackles, after finishing 3rd a year ago while playing as a 4-3 DT (neither of those things are common for DLs). Vellano is also first on the team with 8 TFLs and has an interception. Vellano is 6'2" 285 and has tremendous a tremendous first step off the snap.
Opposite Vellano is fellow senior A.J. Francis. At 6'5" 305, Francis was actually in line to be the first string NT, but was moved to end because of the play of sophomore Darius Kilgo (6'3" 300). Francis and Kilgo benefit from the attention paid to Vellano, and have combined for 33 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
The 4 LBs that Maryland uses include 3 seniors, Demetrius Hartsfield, Darin Drakeford and Kenny Tate. Hartsfield leads the team in tackles and Drakefield is 5th. Kenny Tate was an All-ACC safety in 2010 before moving to LB last year and then missing most of the season due to injury. His injury problems have continued this year, and he has missed 3 games with a knee injury. However, he played last week and is expected to start this week. Tate's replacement has been Alex Twine, and he will play if Tate can't go. The 4th LB is sophomore Cole Farrand, although sophomore L.A. Goree will also play.
Much like the 3-4 defenses Virginia ran, the Terps LBs are all big and fast. Tate is the smallest of the group, at 230 lbs, but he is also 6'4" and very fast (as expected for a former S). The rest are all at least 6'1" and 240 lbs. This is a very good group of LBs, and is a major reason the defense is as good as it has been.
The Terps' secondary isn't nearly as experienced as the front 7, but still has senior Eric Franklin (6'2" 215) leading the group at safety. (As an aside, can you imagine how much better our secondary might be if we still had Rodney McLeod leading them.) Franklin was 2nd on the team in tackles a year ago, and his drop down the list this year can be largely explained by the improved play of the front 7. The safety opposite Franklin is true freshman Anthony Nixon. Nixon is playing in place of sophomore Matt Robinson, who is out with a groin injury. Sophomore A.J. Hendy will also see time at safety and, in fact, has been more productive than Nixon.
The 3-4 defense that Maryland runs is always in attack mode. They want to get into the backfield and pressure the QB. They want to get into running lanes before the running back can get there. They are 22nd in the nation in TFLs and 28th in sacks. They have forced 6 fumbles, but have only 2 INTs. They will often leaves their secondary on an island, and expect the front 7 to get enough pressure on the QB to force an early throw. Sims may see a lot of coverage that he likes, but he'll also have to get rid of the ball before he wants. Forcing Sims to get rid of the ball early might be a good thing at times, as it won't allow him the time to throw the ball deep quite so often. If Sims does get time to throw, there should be downfield routes open.
The DL is very good at getting into the backfield and messing up running plays. This does not bode well for our slow developing counter plays and edge rushes. Our best bet is to run up the middle with either a FB or H-back as a lead blocker. If we can pick up some yards early this way, it would help to slow down the DL and might lead to some big plays later.
Virginia on Defense
While Maryland defense is highly ranked across the board, Maryland's offense is really holding this team back. The Terps rank 116th in rushing offense, 102 in passing offense, 117th in total offense and 103rd in scoring offense. Those numbers actually further highlight just how good their defense is, because they are on the field an awful lot.
The main reason the Terp offense is struggling so much is that loss of two returning QBs from last year. Danny O'Brien started 10 games last year, but transferred to Wisconsin. C.J. Brown took over for O'Brien last year, and was the projected started coming into the season. Brown, however, was lost to a torn ACL in training camp, and the Terps turned to true freshman Perry Hills. Hills is similar to Brown in size and profile, but has struggled with his reads.
The Terps offense is heavy on the read-option runs, which C.J. Brown ran very well. As I mentioned, Hills has been struggling with the reads on this play. On the other hand, Hills has completed about 58% of his passes for about 7.6 ypa, compared to Brown's under 50% completion rate and barely over 5 ypa last year. The Terps offense was pretty bad last year, but it has actually been worse this year.
In the backfield along with Hills, the Terps have used a quartet of RBs. Only one of those 4 had ever seen the field prior to this year, and that is Justus Pickett who carried 74 times as a true freshman last year. The other three are redshirt freshman Brandon Ross and true freshmen Wes Brown and Albert Reid.
Brown has been the most productive this year, with 156 yards on just 33 carries. Pickett has the most carries with 47, but has averaged just 3 yards per carry. Reid and Ross have actually averaged less than 3 ypc. QB Hills actually leads the team in rushes, with 57 carries, but has a total of -7 (yes, minus 7) yards rushing. That total includes 18 sacks for 134 yards lost.
Randy Edsell has announced that he will be using Brown and Pickett on a more regular basis for the rest of the season. Brown is a 4 star recruit who the Terps are very high on. At 6'1" 210 and fast, Brown is already very good and he's going to get better. Pickett, 5'11" 185, is smaller than Brown but also faster. Maryland's longest rush from scrimmage this season is just 21 yards.
Maryland's WR corps is led by true freshman Stefon Diggs. Diggs is seriously good, and has 17 catches for 364 on the season, along with 3 TDs. Diggs is 61st in the nation in receiving, as a true freshman and with a true freshman at QB. Diggs is going to be scary good in a couple of years. Diggs will also return punts and kickoffs for the Terps, and he is dangerous there, although he hasn't necessarily excelled at either yet.
Along with Diggs, the Terps will start senior Kevin Dorsey and sophomore Marcus Leak at WR. Dorsey (6'2" 210) led the team with 45 receptions last year, and has 7 thus far this year. He is a very good route runner, and possession receiver. Senior WR Kerry Boykins is injured, which has pushed Leak (6'0" 200) into the starting lineup. He played sparingly last season and caught 12 balls. Leak has benefit from the attention Diggs sees, and has 14 catches on the season already.
At TE, the Terps will start senior Matt Furstenburg, a 6'4" 245 pound steady receiver who excels against zones and in the red zone. Furstenburg caught 31 balls last year and has 9 thus far this year.
Like so many other teams we've faced this year, the Terps list 12 starters on offense, as they show a FB, sophomore Tyler Cierski. Cierski doesn't have a single touch this year, and hasn't actually started a game, but he will see the field in certain situations. He had 4 carries and 1 reception a year ago as a freshman.
Being forced to play a freshman QB has hurt the Terps a lot. But the way their OL has played, anybody would've struggled back there. This OL has given up 18 sacks in 5 games, and has failed to open up consistent holes for the ground game. The Terps, as a team, have averaged just 2.2 yards per carry. For comparison purposes, note that the disappointing Hoos ground game has averaged 4 yards per carry.
One problem along the line was the transfer of the two projected starting OTs, R.J. Dill and Max Garcia. Partly because of this, Maryland had to reshuffle their entire OL, and not a single starter from last year remains in place. There are two returning starters on the line, seniors Justin Gilbert (6'6" 300) at RT and Bennett Fulper (6'5" 295) at LG. Gilbert took over the starting RG position late last year, and moved to the outside for this season. Fulper started the past two years at C before moving this year. Fulper missed the final two games of the year last year and Sal Conaboy (6'4" 285) stepped in admirably. His solid spring forced the coaching staff to keep him at C, and move Fulper to OG.
The other two OLs are freshmen. RG Andrew Zeller (6'6" 295) is a redshirt freshman and LT Mike Madaras (6'5" 290) is a true freshman. Zeller is playing because of an injury to expected starter Josh Cary. In truth, Cary lost his job last year (to Gilbert) and may have lost it again. Madaras was a high school teammate of E.J. Scott and Vincent Croce and the Terps are very high on him. He has taken over for junior Nick Klemm, who struggled and was replaced.
This line is young, inexperienced, and on the small side. This seems like a good week for the Hoos pass rush to break out. Some of the veteran guys, like Will Hill and Bill Schautz (if he plays) could have a good day against the inexperienced group. Some of the younger guys like Chris Brathwaite and Eli Harold also have a chance to really show what they can do.
The key to shutting down the Terps offense is, amazingly enough, stopping freshman WR Stefon Diggs. Diggs is really the only big weapon they have right now. Hills isn't ready to be an ACC starting QB, although he has looked good at times. Get some pressure on him and he'll get flustered. He's very quick to pull the ball down and take off. While he's a good runner, he's not a great runner, and he can be taken down. This has helped lead to the aforementioned 18 sacks.
For the linemen, key on the read option and do not let the RB get outside with a head of steam. Hopefully, the OLBs can read that play correctly and allow the safeties to focus on Diggs and the WRs, because we do not want them getting open deep. Maryland's offense really isn't good enough to put together long drives, so we can't let them have any big plays.
The Terps are 3-2, and coming off a good win over Wake Forest. Their defense is very good, although not 7th-in-the-nation good. Their offense is really bad. Their offense would've been bad with C.J. Brown at QB, and it is very bad with Hills at QB.
Offensively, we need to neutralize Vellano and give Phillip Sims (or Michael Rocco) time to beat a poor secondary. It is time for our WRs to make some plays and stop dropping catchable passes. We can hit some big plays against this defense, but only if we can keep our QB on his feet. We'll try to run the ball, but probably won't have much success. I think any success we do have will be between the tackles, probably with Kevin Parks. Defensively, as I mentioned, the key is to fluster Perry Hills and keep Stefon Diggs in check.
Maryland would like to keep this game low-scoring, but the Hoos haven't played a lot of low-scoring games this year. If the Hoos can get the Terps into a track meet, they'll come out on top. If the game is played in the teens, the Terps probably come away with a win. I'm going to attempt to stay optimistic about this season.
Prediction: Hoos 24, Terps 14