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Mike Casazza: Questions linger about Maryland offense, WVU defense

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - A season ago, Maryland had the worst offense in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. There were 120 teams ranked and not one was to be found below the Terrapins.

Today, only nine are better.

And in 2012, West Virginia had the worst defense in the 120 years of football played at the school, but not the worst in the country. It was close, but the Mountaineers were No. 108 overall and, thanks to Kansas and Baylor, not even the worst in the Big 12.

Today, only 29 are better, but total yards can be misleading. The Mountaineers ought to be defined this year by what destroyed them last year, when they ranked No. 118 in pass defense and No. 114 in scoring defense.

WVU (2-1) enters Saturday's border bash against the Terrapins (3-1) ranked No. 8 against the pass and No. 16 in scoring defense. The 3:30 p.m. game at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium will be televised by ESPNU.

Yet all that defensive coordinator Keith Patterson knows is that the Terrapins offense will provide a challenge like nothing before it this season to a defense that, quite honestly, Patterson still doesn't know all that much about after three games.

"Everyone has been max protecting against us," Patterson said. "You've got three backs against Oklahoma. Against William & Mary, you had two tight ends and two running backs in a lot of sets. (Georgia State) was the same deal, a lot of tight end formations, a lot of multiple running back formations.

"It's max protecting and it's really not what we're going to see in the Big 12, and I thought the Oklahoma game was a little more indicative of what we'll see this week and in the weeks to come."

The Mountaineers have seen three offenses with an asterisk. William & Mary was a Football Championship Subdivision offense that, while feisty, struggled to run the ball and did much of its damage on three pass plays - and three that WVU frankly gave away with mistakes.

The Sooners were engineered to run the ball, and the Mountaineers weren't threatened by a redshirt freshman quarterback who completed half of his 20 passes for 119 yards and two interceptions. WVU's defense was beaten up and worn down and allowed six of the 12 20-yard plays it's given up this season.

Georgia State, to put it kindly, wasn't good and only scored it's touchdown because WVU first lined up wrong and then missed a lot of tackles to surrender a 65-yard touchdown.

Maryland is entirely different and extremely capable of exploiting the one element of WVU's defense that's carried over from last season to this season. The Mountaineers still give up big plays, whether there's an explanation available or not.

The Terrapins, who had just two games with 400 yards of offense last season, have more than 500 in all three games this season. That hasn't happened in 30 years, but their schedule has some asterisks, too. Old Dominion, Florid International and UConn have combined for one win, and that belongs to ODU against Howard.

Maryland runs the ball effectively and quarterback C.J. Brown trusts his eyes and his legs on the read option, but the pass is what has WVU talking. Their receiver combination of Stefon Diggs and Deon Long will be as good as any the Mountaineers see this season, which is a unique challenge for the thus far so-so cornerbacks.

How Travis Bell, Ishmael Banks and their combined 17 tackles, zero pass breakups and zero interceptions fair remains to be seen.

"It's hard to say," Patterson said. "We haven't really faced a true throwing quarterback, I would say.

It's not accurate to say the Mountaineers haven't seen anyone as good as Diggs and Long, though. With Diggs, the comparison seems as available as it does accurate. He is Tavon Austin.

"They're pretty similar," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They're both from Baltimore. They both wear No. 1. They're both receivers and returners. It doesn't get much more similar than that."

Diggs is a bigger player at 6-foot and 195 pounds, but he's dangerous on special teams and on offense, and he's averaging 129 receiving yards per game and 24.2 yards per catch.

"He's proved to have big play potential," Holgorsen said. "He's got tremendous start-stop ability and probably has more downfield potential than Tavon did. Tavon didn't have just a ton of downhill potential. All his stuff was to get the ball, make a ton of people miss and score."

Long is the same size as Diggs and the former Mountaineer is making a similar impact in his first season with the Terrapins. Long caught nine balls for 110 yards and a score in his first game and has seven catches for 73 yards since.

WVU is not unfamiliar with him, either. Patterson likened Long to Stedman Bailey and said Maryland uses its duo a lot like WVU used its duo. The Mountaineers also have experience with Long where it matters most. He and Banks were teammate at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy in 2009.

"He's about the same height as me, but he's a speedy guy and he runs crisp routes," Banks said. "He's just a natural receiver."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.

 


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