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Game Preview: #15 Virginia Tech vs. Maryland
by Jeff Ouellet, 11/16/04

Thursday, November 18th, 2004, 7:30


Forecast (from
Click the "Blacksburg Weather" link to the right.
Thursday 8 pm forecast, as of 3:30 pm Tuesday: Mostly cloudy, 49 degrees, 10% chance of rain (during the day, mostly cloudy with a high of 63, chance of rain 20%).

Click here for's VT/MD roster card

Preview: #15 Virginia Tech (7-2, 4-1) vs. Maryland (4-5, 2-4)
by Jeff Ouellet

Few occupations can be as fickle as that of a college football coach. Three years into his tenure, Ralph Friedgen was a larger than life figure in College Park as he guided the Maryland Terrapins to an astonishing 31 wins. Only two coaches – ever – matched that total in their first three seasons: Miami’s Larry Coker and former Oklahoma head man Barry Switzer. The combination of Friedgen’s creativity and the leftover talent from the Ron Vanderlin era (a very underrated recruiter) helped fashion the most successful recent ACC program north of Tallahassee.

In large measure because of Friedgen’s ability to piece together game plans and numerous recent recruiting successes, many expected the Terps to continue to ride that wave of success despite returning only eight starters. However, things haven’t gone that smoothly this fall. Consequently, Maryland brings a losing record (4-5, 2-4) into Lane Stadium Thursday night to face a Virginia Tech team that suddenly finds itself all alone in first place (7-2, 4-1) in the reconfigured ACC.

What is perhaps most shocking about the Terps’ collapse this season is their anemic offense. UMd pieced together successful offenses around underwhelming quarterback talents like Shaun Hill and Scott McBrien, so it was widely assumed that Friedgen was the McGyver of coaching and could craft a functional quarterback out of dental floss and beef jerky. This season has proven it simply isn’t that easy, and as a result, the Terps are fighting to be bowl eligible.

What is somewhat daunting about this game is the fact that the Terps have the ability to play well, as demonstrated by their fantastic 20-17 upset win over Florida State, or simply bad as they demonstrated in a 16-0 shutout loss to UVa that really wasn’t that close.

Maryland’s Offense

Maryland’s yearly offensive averages exemplify their struggles. The Terps net 125 yards rushing per game (ninth in conference), and 184 yards through the air (seventh). What is most disturbing for Maryland followers, however, should be the downright awful 3.0 yards per rush average (second worst to Duke). In terms of scoring offense, the Terps average 19.6 points per contest, also second worst to Duke.

Upon closer inspection, however, those numbers may even be generous. Taking away a blowout win over Duke in their ACC opener, the Terps have put up the following point totals in ACC play: 7 versus GT, 3 versus State, 7 at Clemson, 20 versus FSU, and 0 versus the Cavs. That is four touchdowns in their last five ACC games, folks. In those five games UMd has rushed for 262 yards total. Mike Imoh had 243 last week.

The most visible problem for UMd has been the quarterback spot. 6’1”, 207 SO Joel Statham has started every game this year. Statham has decent mobility and some skill, but he has struggled with his confidence and decision making. He has not been helped by the offensive line or his receivers as well.

Statistically, Statham is among the worst quarterbacks in the ACC. He completes only 54-percent of his passes, and has an 8:12 touchdown to interception ratio. Maryland has not shown the ability to threaten people deep, and that has forced Statham to operate under heavy pressure this year. Statham suffered a collarbone injury in the first half against Virginia and is officially questionable for the game this week.

The backup quarterback is former VT recruiting target and true freshman Jordan Steffy (6’1”, 210). I had the opportunity to see Steffy perform several times in high school, and he is a very good athlete with escapability and a strong enough arm. However, he did not operate a sophisticated high school offense, a la Chad Henne of Michigan, so his transition to major college football has been a struggle. Steffy has played in five games this year, completing just 35% of his passes (9-26). Steffy does not have great mechanics and has struggled to read defenses at this point in his career. He still has a terrific long-term prospectus, but I do not like his chances executing at Lane at night.

I would expect Bud Foster to approach the two quarterbacks slightly differently. Expect him to be patient and play some zone with Statham, forcing the Maryland offense to maintain drives to score. On the other hand, I think they will be more aggressive with Steffy because of his inexperience and the possibility of forcing him into a mistake. I suspect that Steffy will be instructed to run when in doubt, so the VT linebackers will have to pursue well when he is in the game.

Maryland has two tailbacks that share the load, 6’1”, 233 SR Sam Maldonado and 5’11”, 207 JR Josh Allen. Maldonado has 122 carries on the year for 486 yards (4.0 per carry) and five touchdowns, while Allen has 123 carries for 462 yards (3.8 per carry). As you would expect given his size, Maldonado is the more physical back and excels between the tackles, while Allen has more wiggle and speed. Although neither is a featured receiver (13 total catches on the year), Allen did demonstrate some big play ability with a 72 yard touchdown reception versus the vaunted FSU defense.

UMd tends to play more two tight end sets rather than using a traditional fullback, but the bulk of the fullback work will likely be done by 5’11”, 229 SR Maurice Smith.

In the passing game, the Terps have some decent options but lack a go to guy. The leading receiver is 6’0”, 185 JR Derrick Fenner. On the year, Fenner has 23 catches for 302 yards and two touchdowns. Fenner has not displayed the big play ability this season that he showed last year when he averaged an Andre Davis-esque 27.8 yards per catch on 12 receptions.

Seniors Rich Parson (5’10”, 187) and Steve Suter (5’10”, 192) provide experience on the flanks, but that is where their similarities end. Parson excels in the slot and is a move the chains type. He has 21 catches for 248 yards (11.8 average). Suter has excellent body control and the ability to make people miss. He likewise has an 11.8 per catch average (13/154). Suter suffered a hamstring injury last week, but he should be fine for Thursday.

Drew Weatherly provides some size at wide receiver (6’4”, 200 SO) and has 9 catches on the year. The other wide receivers of note, 5’9”, 165 JR Jo Jo Walker and 6’2”, 175 Dan Melendez are likely out — but their status could change by game time.

Like many ACC teams, the Terps have good tight ends. In fact, the best offensive weapon for Maryland is 6’3”, 231 SO Vernon Davis. Davis was a blue chip recruit and he has emerged as a budding star this fall. He leads Maryland with 25 catches for a whopping 16.7 per catch average (very high for a tight end) with three touchdowns. Shadowing Davis will be a huge chore for the VT linebackers.

Maryland has two other tight ends that are often involved in the offense. 6’8”, 258 JR Derek Miller engulfs defenders with his size. He has started very game this fall and is the best blocker among the tight end triumvirate.

Rob Abiamiri, 6’2”, 241 SR is a talented athlete that has been used a little in the passing game. He has six catches on the year. Looking at the UMd offense, the primary area of concern has to be their tight ends.

The offensive line was expected to be a very good unit after returning three starters, but it hasn’t turned out that way. The Terps have averaged a shoddy 3.0 per carry and surrendered 25 sacks on the season.

The returning starters from last year are 6’5”, 297 SR center Kyle Schmidt, 6’6”, 318 SR left guard C.J. Brooks, and 6’6”, 295 JR left tackle Stephon Heyer. Schmidt was the Terps highest graded lineman last season and is a solid anchor in the middle. Brooks has tantalizing potential and the NFL scouts are very intrigued by him. He has started every game of his career (47 and counting), but he hasn’t reached the level of consistent greatness many expected. When playing well, he is an all-conference caliber player. Heyer has been solid in the important left tackle spot. It is safe to say Maryland will go middle-left when it needs the tough yards.

The right guard slot has been manned by both FR Andrew Crummey (6’4”, 273, 5 starts) and JR Russell Bonham (6’4”, 294, 4 starts). Crummey has a lot of tools and the staff likes him, but he simply doesn’t have as much size as he needs to be a force inside. Bonham started the game against UVa and brings more bulk, but he’s been inconsistent.

The right tackle is Lou Lombaro, a 6’6”, 287 workmanlike senior. He isn’t a star, but a lunch pail type who gets the most out of his ability.

While UMd’s line is very tall, they are also on the light side. They run all sorts of different schemes – traps, isolations, and zone blocking, and the Hokies will need to be prepared for everything.

Maryland’s Defense

The Terrapin defense is good to very good in all phases of the game. They only surrender 4.5 yards per play (that equals VT’s average), and the opposition only averages 132 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry (better than VT’s 3.4). The pass defense is fourth in the conference, yielding 182 yards per game. UMd has held its opponents to 17.6 points per game on the year, fourth in the league. All of these numbers are all the more impressive when you consider the struggles of the offense.

Although I might get some disagreement on this, I believe the best Terrapin defender is 6’4”, 255 JR Shawne Merriman. Last year Merriman played outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but his year he plays much more of a traditional end spot as the Terps have moved to a 4-3. His numbers are very, very impressive. On the year, he is ninth in the conference in tackles with 69 tackles (7.7 per game), he has six sacks (sixth in the conference) and 13.5 tackles for losses (third in conference). To put Merriman’s year in perspective, the second most tackles for a defensive lineman in the ACC is Darryl Tapp, who has 47, and we know what kind of year Tapp is having. Merriman played linebacker last season and has a great burst off the corner. His speed and quickness will challenge the VT tackles.

The bookend defensive end is 6’2”, 271 SR Kevin Eli. Like Merriman, Eli is a returning starter. Last season he earned second team all league honors. He’s not been as productive this year, as he has notched only 18 tackles including three for a loss. His numbers may have been hurt by the fact that he has played inside some this year as well.

The inside positions are handled by 6’3”, 279 Henry Scott and 6’2”, 279 Conrad Bolston. Scott plays the nose which makes it tough to make a lot of plays, but he does have 19 tackles and an impressive eight tackles for a loss on the season. Bolston is an up and comer who appears to have a high motor and a bright future. He has 24 tackles, including five for a loss, and 2.5 sacks. All of the Terps defensive lineman have the capability of making a negative play. 6’3”, 303 SO Rob Armstrong, a UVa decommit, has the best size among the interior players and has seen significant time as well. Overall, this is a very good defensive line.

The ringleader of the linebackers is JR mike D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson is a 6’1”, 224 JR who is a tackling machine. Let him run to the ball and he’ll get there in a quickly and with a bad mood. He has 105 tackles, tops in the ACC, and he averages nearly two full tackles more per game than the second leading tackler in the conference (Gerris Wilkerson of Georgia Tech).

Jackson’s speed and instincts come in handy in pass coverage as well, as he has two interceptions, tied for the team lead, and five pass breakups. The key to containing Jackson is to allow either a pulling lineman or a fullback to get into his body. If he runs free and clear, it will be tough to find running room.

Rangy 6’3”, 233 JR William Kershaw is the weakside linebacker, while 6’2”, 228 SO David Holloway handles the strongside chore. Kershaw has had the more productive year with 53 tackles, including 5 for a loss and 2 sacks, as well as an interception. Kershaw has two blocked kicks this year – watch him on special teams. Holloway has 39 stops and 4 tackles for a loss. The linebackers have stayed relatively healthy all year as none of the three has missed a start.

The Maryland secondary only had one returning starter, but they had a lot of experienced backups ready to assume prominent roles. Three senior starters, led by Domonique Foxworth (38 career starts), make this the most experienced unit on the team.

Foxworth, 5’11”, 177, is a two time all conference selection who is the Terps best cover guy. His numbers don’t jump out at you (33 tackles, seven passes broken up, zero interceptions) but he doesn’t blow coverages and has good technique.

The other corner spot has gone to SO Josh Wilson the last two weeks. Wilson, 5’9”, 172, can run and shows a lot of promise. He seems to have a solid feel for the game. On the year he has 21 tackles. JR Gerrick McPhearson has started six times and is the nickel corner. On the season he has 31 tackles and eight passes broken up.

The guy who will probably be the most visible Thursday is strong safety Chris Kelley. Kelley is a 6’2”, 210 SR who is third on the team with 65 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss. He is always around the ball, and he has an interception, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble this year. He is most effective in run support and is the eighth guy in the box for the Terps. His coverage skills can be exploited.

The free safety is 5’9”, 189 SR Ray Custis. Custis has 36 tackles and two interceptions. He does a nice job patrolling the middle of the field, but, again, he lacks ideal height. This might be the game where David Clowney or Eddie Royal finally nab a catch on a fly pattern.

Maryland’s Special Teams

This is a big concern going into the game with the Terps as their special teams have been far superior on paper this year. SO punter Adam Podesh averages 44.4 yards per punt, but more impressively UMd nets over 40 yards per punt (40.1). In fact, only 19 of his 49 punts have even been returned. In contrast, 21 of Vinnie Burns’ 37 kicks have been returned.

SO kicker Nick Novak is a two time first team All-ACC selection, but he hasn’t had a great season. He’s only 12 of 17 on attempts, although admittedly 3 of his misses have come on 40 plus yard kicks. He hasn’t missed an extra point this year. Novak is very experienced (76 made field goals in his career), so he won’t be afraid to take a big kick.

Maryland’s kickoff coverage team is poor. They surrender 24.6 yards per return, good enough for second-to-last in the ACC. They also yield over 11 yards per punt return, but, as noted above, many kicks are not returned.

The statistics don’t do justice to Maryland’s return game. Steve Suter has only averaged 7.7 yards per punt this year, but he has returned six for touchdowns in his career. That is only one shy of the NCAA record. The VT punt coverage team must be disciplined when facing Suter.

Suter also is the primary kickoff returner and he averages 26.9 per return. He usually is back in a dual set with Jo Jo Walker (18.5 average), but with Walker’s availability uncertain don’t be surprised if Rich Parson was back there.

Maryland also has blocked three kicks this year. VT will need to right the ship after a poor performance versus UNC here or the Terps may get some cheap points.

The Lowdown

The psychology of a football team is a tricky thing, and Friedgen admitted his team looked lost against UVa for much of the game. Will the time off help his team refocus and clear out the cobwebs, or is this a case where the players have already decided to pack it in for the year? I think getting an early score or two for the Hokies would go a long way towards ending this game early.

Maryland is playing for a shot to be bowl eligible, and that may serve as a motivational tool. Ultimately, however, the problem for the Terps is that they will be playing in Lane at night against a very tough defensive team. Maryland hasn’t been able to run against anyone lately, and playing behind the chains (3rd and long) is a recipe for disaster against the Hokies. Making matters even worse for the Terps is the fact that a true freshman may be taking the snaps. I remember Ken Dorsey as a true freshman in Lane in 1999 with his deer in the headlights look, and Dorsey had a lot more to work with than Steffy does right now.

Maryland’s turnover margin isn’t good coming into this game (-4 on the season), and it is tough to see it improving in Blacksburg. Consequently, I think their best shot in the game is to rely heavily on their defense and hope for special teams to set up a couple of scores. This might also be a good game to dust off the playbook for a couple of trick plays.

I see the VT defense dominating this game and creating enough field position for the offense to score. VT may struggle against a UMd defense that hasn’t given up more than two touchdowns in a game for five weeks, but I think the combination of Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes (yep, I think Humes gets close to double digit carries) will play well. This game could be a blowout, but I’ve seen too many close calls this year to predict a big numerical win by the Hokies.

Nonetheless, VT should be able to win by double digits if they can play even on special teams with the Terps.

Prediction: VT 17, UMD 6

Will Stewart's Take: Many on the message boards are nervous about this game, but I've got a good feeling about it. That's ironic, because prior to the season I was asked a couple of times what I thought about VT playing in the ACC, and I responded that I thought Maryland was going to give the Hokies fits. I have a lot of respect for Friedgen, and I pictured him being the ACC's equivalent of Pittsburgh's Walt Harris when playing against the Hokies. Namely, a worthy foe that confounds VT and gives them trouble at every turn.

Maybe that will develop over time, but I don't see it starting this year. While many teams struggle to find their ACC identities -- Miami loses at UNC, Clemson loses to Duke after beating Miami, Maryland goes down with a whimper at UVa after beating FSU ... then there's NC State -- I think the Hokies are picking up steam.

Many have expressed concerns that the Hokies might overlook Maryland in anticipation of Virginia and Miami and a possible ACC championship. No, I don't think so. I think the Hokies know exactly where they are and what they're supposed to be doing. This team has its head screwed on right.

By the time Thursday gets there, it will be 47 days since the Hokies played a meaningful game at Lane Stadium (WVU on Oct. 2nd). The team is excited to be home again, playing in an important ACC game. The fans are jacked, knowing that it's the only home night game for the Hokies this season. VT has only lost once on ESPN on Thursday night, the opener against BC back in 1995. Xavier Adibi will be sporting a maroon jersey for the first time. There are just a bunch of factors coming together in the perfect storm, and I think Maryland's going to get caught in it.

I've learned not to be bold with pre-game predictions, but I've got a feeling about this one.

Will's Prediction: VT 24, Maryland 7

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