The images of Maryland’s miserable trip into the mountains to play West Virginia last year can be categorized simply.
Steve Slaton juking Terrapins linebackers with moves straight from a video game. Slaton bouncing off defenders with ease while performing a sublime imitation of a human pinball. Slaton coasting into the end zone and celebrating the culmination of another highlight-reel run.
Interspersed in the Slaton montage were the bewildered glances of the Terps, not stunned by profound discoveries but rather the exposure of disastrous problems. There was the inability to hold on to the ball, the knee buckling endemic to allowing Slaton into open space and the simple failure to wrap up a player with the ball.
“A lot different,” defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said of how last year’s bludgeoning might have unfolded if the most basic of plays — the tackle — were executed better. “I can tell you a couple other games that would have been different, too. Early on last year, sometimes we thought tackling was an option, but it’s a necessity and we got better at it.”
Indeed, the Terps (2-0) have held three straight opponents below 100 yards rushing for the first time in the Ralph Friedgen era, and rank a commendable 15th against the run after yielding 93 yards on the ground in their first two games.
But the No. 4 Mountaineers (2-0), with their spread option attack featuring Slaton and slick quarterback Pat White, provide a much different challenge than Villanova or Florida International.
Those teams, Maryland’s first two opponents, don’t possess nearly the same speed as the Mountaineers do. Heck, virtually no one does, and West Virginia can still pound bruising fullback Owen Schmitt up the middle to keep defenses honest.
So how can a team counter that combination?
“It’s simple,” safety Christian Varner said. “Playing physical, playing hard, playing fast and playing smart. We have to know our assignments to the point where we’re not thinking about it. We have to hit it, and hit it before it hits us. At times last year, we were waiting for it to hit us.”
Last year was forgettable in nearly every way. The Terps’ special teams, usually a strength, endured an abnormally abysmal evening. Maryland committed five turnovers. Slaton scooted for 149 yards in the first quarter (and 195 yards for the night). And it was 28-0 after 15 minutes, with West Virginia well on its way to a 45-24 victory.
Maryland cannot afford a rerun of any of those problems, least of all a crushing start.
“The longer they’re on the field, the better their chances,” Friedgen said. “To me, I’d rather have one of those old boring games, 2-0. That’s not going to happen with this team.”
The lessons of haplessly chasing Slaton last year continue to resonate. Maryland’s tackling eventually improved, and its recent stretch against the run provides hope the Terps won’t be flattened tonight.
Cosh, now in his second season, sees advances in pursuit, sticking to assignments and, yes, tackling in the last year. And while it would be thoroughly unfair to take stock of Maryland’s defense based exclusively on how it handles the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense, whatever happens tonight can be compared to last year’s debacle.
“We’re trying to come out right from the first play and hit them in the mouth and try to set the tone this year,” defensive tackle Carlos Feliciano said. “I think they think they’re going to come in here and have a pretty easy game, and we’re not going to let that happen.”
Last year the Terps struggled through three victories over inferior opponents and were blasted by West Virginia on national television, cementing a reputation the statistically anomalous team never could shake.
Friedgen is still grousing about how the Terps didn’t finish in the top 25 despite a 9-4 record. Ugly victories, like Saturday’s 26-10 defeat of Florida International, don’t sway hearts and minds into respecting a program.
A signature victory over a top-five team, though, would probably do the trick.
“If we win this game we’re automatically catapulted into the top 25, and if we’re not then I don’t know what we have to do to do that,” wide receiver Danny Oquendo said. “It’s a huge game.”