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Maryland has won their conference opener every year since 2007, when they lost to Wake Forest on the road in overtime. Will they continue their streak of early conference success Saturday?
Maryland has had a bye week to recover from two straight losses - one disappointing and one encouraging. After a loss to Connecticut in the Edsall Bowl, Maryland hung with one of the top teams in the country on the road at West Virginia before losing late, and now stand at 2-2.
2-2 was not an unreasonable thought at this point in Maryland's season - besides the Mountaineers, the early slate was fairly easy. However, there's a great deal more optimism surrounding the team than there was at the outset of the year.
After C.J. Brown got hurt, the Terrapins' offense was thought to be a lost cause. Specifically, the idea of having a true freshman (Perry Hills) lead the offense caused many to give up on the year. After a bad game against William & Mary was followed up by a pretty good one against Temple, an awful outing against Connecticut (10/24 for 109 yards with an interception and a touchdown) only seemed to support that theory. After he essentially outperformed Heisman favorite Geno Smith in Morgantown, however (20-29/305/3/1 for Hills, 30-43/338/3/0 for Smith), it seems that Maryland could even sneak into a bowl game.
Hills has gotten some help around him, namely from two key Good Counsel true freshmen. Wes Brown has been very good when he's gotten the ball, and Stefon Diggs has been a bona fide star. Through four games, he has 642 total yards and three touchdowns on just 39 touches.
Wake Forest is in a similar position - through five games, they're 3-2, a reasonable expectation for their schedule, but they surprisingly won against North Carolina and surprisingly lost against Duke last week. The Demon Deacons have only lost to the Blue Devils and Florida State, and because Maryland is much closer to the former than the latter, we're going to look at Wake's loss to Duke.
The first thing that sticks out is that Sean Renfree is apparently still in college. The second thing that sticks out is turnovers. Wake and Duke were pretty much even in every category but turnovers - where the Deacons committed four to the Devils' one.
For Maryland, turnovers have been a serious cause of concern this season. The Terps' rank 114th in the nation in turnover margin, at an average of nearly -2 per game (13 lost, six gained). Hills has gotten better at (not) turning the ball over, as have Diggs and Brown, and that has to continue if Maryland wants to win Saturday.
What should help that number is the full return of the linebacker formerly known as Kenny Tate, who was back for the West Virginia game but reportedly was not yet at full health. We should have as close to a healthy Tate as we're going to see this year, and he adds a different dimension to Maryland's linebacking corps and some extra depth to their pass defense. A.J. Hendy is also supposed to be back, but is expected to only have a role on special teams.
The Terps will be facing the familiar duo of quarterback Tanner Price and running back Josh Harris, although wide receiver (and Maryland native) Michael Campanaro will miss the game with a broken hand. Price, in his third year as a starter, has also had an up-and-down season. After a disappointing performance against Liberty, he played well against UNC before a dreadful 8-22 for 82 yards showing against Florida State. Price rebounded nicely with a 15-24, 221 yard, two touchdown performance against Army, but was ineffective against Duke (19/38, 230 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions).
Harris missed out on the second half of last season, including the clash against Maryland, but was the starter for the first half of the year and for the 2010 season. This year, he hasn't been able to make much of an impact, save a performance against Army that saw twelve carries for 129 yards and two touchdowns. His only other touchdown this year came against North Carolina, a game in which he ran 21 times for 40 yards.
When Maryland is on offense, there will be a decidedly different look on the offensive line. After coming through with a big block to spring Stefon Diggs on a touchdown reception, redshirt freshman Andrew Zeller will start at right guard over De'Onte Arnett. On the other side of the line, true freshman Mike Madaras will start at left tackle after a string of pretty good performances. Madaras is the first true freshman to start on Maryland's O-Line since current starting guard Bennett Fulper in 2009.
The Deacons don't particularly impress in any category (their best ranking nationally is pass defense, at 52nd), and their run defense is especially suspect. Wake is giving up over 230 yards per game on the ground, and Maryland's fearsome foursome should be looking to rack up the yards on Saturday.
Leading the Deacons in tackles is linebacker Mike Olson, with 44 through five games. He only has three for a loss and one sack, but has double-digit tackles in each of his last two games. Also in the linebacking corps is fellow junior Justin Jackson, who has 42 tackles with three sacks and a blocked kick - he's probably the closest thing to a playmaker that Wake has in their front seven.
Up front, Zach Thompson has 22 tackles and an interception, but has been unable to break through the line for a tackle for a loss. Kris Redding has 23 tackles with two sacks and five tackles for a loss, and is an effective rushing optioon from the outside.
The secondary has done a pretty good job so far this year, led by junior safety A.J. Marshall. Marshall had an interception return for a touchdown and two pass break-ups against Liberty, forced a fumble against Army, and had ten tackles against Duke.
Ultimately, Wake hasn't faced a wide receiver like Diggs yet, and it's impossible to know whether they'll be able to step it up. On paper, this looks like a team that Maryland should beat, and a game that Maryland should win. We'll have to wait and see on Saturday, but the Terps' offensive talent and reloaded defense should have what it takes.
Prediction: Maryland 31, Wake Forest 20. Stefon Diggs scores two touchdowns, Wes Brown scores one and Justus Pickett scores one. Maryland gives up a touchdown on a turnover, but the defense plays well in general and the Terps improve to 3-2, making it five straight years with a conference-opening win.