Significant Terps: Cal – Maryland Preview

Posted by: Avinash on Friday, September 12th, 2008

(Just a programming note: Cal-Maryland liveblog starts at 11:30-11:45 AM EST, 8:30-8:45 AM PST. Mmm, bleary-eyed.)

Offense-We’re not so different after all: In a hotly debated quarterback controversy, both Jordan Steffy and Chris Turner had their roles to play in the 2007 season. After Steffy epitomized the low-risk offense (67.3 completion percentage with 98 yards per game), Turner came in and threw for 1,958 yards with a 63.5 completion percentage (stats from Phil Steele), including upsets at Rutgers and home versus BC.

Yet Maryland’s appropriately named coach, Ralph Friedgen, went right back to Steffy for the season opener. After a hum-drum first three quarters versus Delaware, Friedgen went right to Turner after Steffy “suffered an injured thumb”. But all this yanking around seems to have stifled the team’s performance, as evidenced by last week’s result (more on that later). Not to mention third string quarterback (and supposed cheater) Josh Portis keeps on getting snaps all over the place, leaving poor Turner looking over his shoulder (he will be starting Saturday, according to reports).

The lesson here? Be glad who your head coach is.

Fact: Maryland was flat-out embarrassed last week in a 24-14 defeat to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders.

Deeper Truth: Middle Tennessee State dominated possession in the first half, running three drives that lasted ten plays or more, yet somehow only came out with ten points (a missed field goal was the result of the third drive). MTSU ran 54 plays in the first half, Maryland 17 yet nursed a 10-7 lead at halftime. Returning all of five starters, Maryland’s defense seems to be applying an extreme version of bend don’t break.

Maryland presents many challenges as a team as well. They have big time players at running back and at receiver and they have an experienced and physical offensive line.

~Jeff Tedford

When given the opportunity, Maryland’s two big gamebreakers Da’Rel Scott and Darrius Heyward-Bey broke out for deep field scores that kept the Terps in the game. Despite the disparity in team performance, both of Maryland’s touchdown drives were similar to how Cal accumulated the bulk of their points–long yardage, quick hitting plays by their playmakers. Maryland’s two scoring drives lasted a grand total of thirty-nine seconds. Their two longest drives ended in a field goal miss and an interception in the red zone.

Caveat: Maryland’s bipolar offense allowed them to channel Washington State too, as Chris Turner threw three interceptions, one at his own 22 that led to a decisive MTSU score in the third quarter, the other two killing late 4th quarter drives in Blue Raider territory.  According to Turtle Waxing, Middle Tennessee State’s strategy seemed to be as follows:

Apparently both of these strategies paid off. Maryland could not mount a successful fourth quarter drive, coming out of MTSU territory three times with zero points.

What has to be even more discouraging for Maryland is that they didn’t even get upset by a strong mid-major. Middle Tennessee State has only 27 upperclassmen and isn’t projected to finish much higher than fifth or sixth in the Sun Belt.

Fortune favors the bold: Early in the game, Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill went for it on 4th and short twice, converting both times and setting up their two first half scores. They appeared to convert another one in the third quarter, but the play was called back on a penalty.

More notes and strategy vs. Cal defense: It’s baffling how Scott has managed only 37 carries this entire season, Maryland has the 12th highest rushing average per carry, and the Terps have looked like turtle soup these first two games. The reason might lie in the offensive line and ineffective quarterback play, which seems to be what defenses are honing in on as the key to halting Maryland’s progress. The offensive line has not looked particularly good, allowing Middle Tennessee State’s pass rush to affect Turner’s passes.

Look for Cal to focus on the rush on the early downs and then force Turner to throw the ball on them. I would not be surprised to see Syd’Quan on Howard-Bey for a majority of the game, although you might also see Darian Hagan mixed up for some big minutes. Considering the 3-4 relies heavily on the secondary, Maryland might be tempted to pass early and test Cal’s still-not-quite-proven defensive backs. Success against them will open up Scott to a more open field and opportunity for bigger gains.

Defense: It’s hard to say much good about Maryland’s defense after allowing MTSU to run 37 more plays in the first half. Despite the supposed improvements in the front seven, the secondary has actually been the best part of this defense’s performance. Only allowing 2.9 yards per carry in the running game last week, this solid shutdown effort was negated by terrible flat coverage by Maryland’s linebackers, allowing a 31 yard conversion on 4th and 5 and a touchdown after giving up 2nd and goal at the 21.

It’s hard to find much good in last week’s performance. They performed much better against Division I-AA Delaware, only allowing them to pass midfield once. Since they will be at home we’ll have to assume they’ll perform more like that team, so it’ll be important for Jahvid Best to get open early and get moving into open field. Utilizing the short pass game might be most effective given the unimpressive linebacker performance. This strategy seems to fit right into Frank Cignetti’s wheelhouse.

We might see a reverse of what happened last week–Maryland will rely on quick strikes by its two playmakers to score, while Cal will try to grind the ball against a weary and weakened Terps defense. Look for plenty of short strikes, screen passes, flat screens, and only an occasional deep throw if the opportunity presents itself.

Outlook: You kind of wish Cal had played Maryland before they played Wazzu, because it’s unlikely you’ll see offensive coordinator James Franklin throw up another Dumpster Muffin (That’s what I’m using as the equivalent of a turd sandwich for anything Cal-related: a dumpster muffin). Perhaps he was just snoozing through the first two weeks to unleash Heyward-Bey and Scott on Cal on national television, expose the Pac-10’s talent on natural grass, hope Turner plays well for his native California family, and run his mad schemes to overwhelm an overconfident, “chest-huffing” Golden Bear squad.

An upset is unlikely, but with the national coverage Cal is getting from this game, it’ll be important for Riley and the Bears to follow up their impressive box score win with a decisive sixty minutes of solid football. Again, this being a young team, expect some growing pains (first game, then first road game, now first national TV game), but Cal will have to kill themselves repeatedly to fall.

Any other thoughts on Cal-Maryland before the game? Leave them in the comments.

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