First, a breakdown. The Terps, thus far, have often used an outside-in approach to pressure out of a base 3-4 set. They are bringing players – linebackers or defensive backs – from the edge, allowing the three to four man fronts to hold blocks and contain mobile quarterbacks. But that might not be the game plan at all for West Virginia, which doesn’t offer a fleet afoot quarterback in Ford Childress. Instead Stewart, in his second season at UM after being rumored as a major candidate for the WVU job, might rely on added pressure from varying angles and positions in an attempt to flush the pocket passer.
“Those guys do a good job with pressure,” WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “They disguise well. They get off blocks and twist. They are a pressure defense and they aren’t scared to play man. They won’t change their mentality at all, because we haven’t made many plays down the field. Why would anybody be threatened by us? We have to make some plays before we can change a defensive mentality. “
Stewart is quite familiar with slowing Air Raid-style offenses. He spent two seasons at Houston under now-Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin just after WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen’s departure from UH to Oklahoma State as an assistant. And he coordinated a UM defense that held WVU to 24 points and 363 yards last season, well below averages. Maryland finished second in the ACC and 21st in the nation last season in total defense (336.8 ypg), a remarkable turnaround from the Terps’ dismal initial season under third-year head coach Randy Edsall.
Stewart’s time at Houston gave him some insight into the speed, operations and play calling of Holgorsen’s offensive style, so much so that he installed a wristband system for the Terps so they could quickly match the play calls of the Mountaineers last year. What they couldn’t match was the tempo or raw talent, gaps that seem to have tightened this season despite Maryland’s inexperience with a front seven that returned just one starter. UM has held its first three foes to an average of less than two touchdowns.
“We really have to communicate well between running back and o-line,” Dawson said. “And (Childress) has to understand when he has to get rid of the ball. There are times, with certain things they show, we have to get rid of it really, really quick. I’ve always believed that part of that part of the protection deal lies on the quarterback, probably most of it. If you get rid of the ball, you’re not going to take a sack. You take sacks by holding the ball. We have to understand when we have to get rid of the ball, which is going to be quick at times this week.”
Childress took a pair of sacks against Georgia State because of holding the ball far too long. But that was partially because the Panthers weren’t a major upset threat, and so the tendency to try and force the action was more prevalent than it likely will be this week, when a more surefire, mistake-free approach is warranted. Childress, who said that he “left some throws out there” in the 41-7 win over GSU, must be able to correctly read the UM pressure, at least post-snap if not pre, and recognize his hot routes and where the ball must go.
Childress also showed tendencies to try and fit passes into tight windows and challenge double coverage, which would be a mistake against a Maryland secondary even sans a pair of starters. Take the percentage plays, rely on your defense and run game and – hopefully – begin to develop that player-to-player feel badly missing from the first three weeks of the season.
“When you’ve been rotating so many quarterbacks in, there needs to be some cohesion with the group,” Dawson said. “Now that (Childress) has played a game, he has gotten some reps and we have the right people around him, hopefully we can start jelling together a bit. We are close at times, and you can see the spark at times, but something is missing and I think it’s just that those guys haven’t played together very long.”
Offensive line play, as always, will be key. The Mountaineers must be able to at least partially negate some of the UM pressure, especially if its numbers are even or better, and sustain some individual blocks on the interior if UM resorts to sending extra numbers to the outside. The biggest threat for Terrapin foes, thus far, has been linebacker Marcus Whitfield, tied for first in the NCAA with 4.5 sacks.
Dawson noted West Virginia often stopped rives itself last week. There were two short yardage plays the Mountaineers failed to pick up because of lack of push. There were multiple penalties that forced second or third and longs and created down and distance issues. All will be killers this week.
“I think as a coach you always look back at the negative plays we could have done better,” offensive line coach Ron Crook said. “There’s always a point where you feel good about where are you are at, the things you have done, but you are always looking to make improvements and boy, if we could have done this we could have been a lot better."
Crook said Maryland was a “very similar” defense to that of Oklahoma, running a similar scheme and with comparable players, and that communication, holding blocks and understanding assignments and play calls would be imperative. A touch of urgency, and tough, physical play would also be welcomed.
“I’m sure there will be some good guys coming through there,” Crook said of the UM rush. “They are big, they are strong, they’re fast, they’re quick. They are a good football team. The biggest difference (for WVU) is in pass pro. They specialize in (the rush). They’re No. 1 in the country in sacks, so they are doing something right from that standpoint so that’s something we have to focus on. They are doing a lot of things. They run some twists that create issues. They run blitzes, and twists within their blitzes that really creates confusion within the offensive line. It will be a good challenge for us.”