by Mike Coffey
Notre Dame continues its march through the ACC portion of its schedule as the Fighting Irish will face Maryland on Saturday evening at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. The 6-3 Irish are coming off a road victory against Wake Forest, while the 2-7 Terrapins have struggled of late and are riding a five game losing streak. The game will be televised on NBC starting at 7:30 PM EST.
Injuries have been the story for Notre Dame as the regular season winds down. The offense had been healthy until last week, when center Braxton Cave was lost for the season. Coach Brian Kelly also reported this week that slot receiver Theo Riddick will not play on Saturday. Defensively, the Irish may get Ethan Johnson back along the front line but Aaron Lynch and linebacker Manti Te’o are hobbled by ankle injuries and will not be at full strength. End Kapron Lewis-Moore had earlier suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The Terrapins have failed to stop anyone on defense and are particularly weak against the run. Coach Randy Edsall has deployed several young players in his first season at the helm, although Maryland players and fans have been subjected to more of a rebuilding year than either group had anticipated. The offense has also sputtered in recent weeks, and Edsall has begun to rotate quarterbacks in search of a spark. Incumbent Danny O’Brien is more of a pocket passer, while the more mobile C. J. Brown has seen enough playing time to become the team’s second leading rusher.
The Irish would like to settle the issue early against Maryland and provide some rest for its key players. They will also be favored to win at home next week against Boston College, but have a date with national championship contender Stanford later this month that will require a maximum effort.
NOTRE DAME’s OFFENSE vs. MARYLAND’s DEFENSE
The Terps have surrendered yardage on the ground at a pace last seen during September of 1939 in Poland. While Notre Dame does not have an army of Panzers, the duo of Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood runs behind an offensive line that should be able to steamroll most everyone wearing a Maryland uniform in its path. The lone exception may be Joe Vellone, who is a surprising second on the team in tackles and leads all FBS defensive linemen in tackles per game with 7.8. Vellone is joined on the interior of the line by Maurice Hampton, who is one of only two seniors on the Terp defense.
Middle linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield is a solid player in the 4-3 alignment, but sidekick Kenny Tate is injured and will not play against the Irish. To make matters worse, Edsall recently suspended pass rusher David Mackall, who was arguably the team’s most productive defender. Depth has become a problem with this group and Notre Dame should be able to take advantage by pounding the ball. Mike Golic, Jr. filled in seamlessly for Cave last week, but his battles with Vellone and Hampton may be interesting to watch.
Quarterback Tommy Rees will not have Riddick in the passing game, but Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert should be enough weaponry to achieve success through the air. Safety Eric Franklin is the team’s leading tackler, and the Irish will strive to make him respect the run so that Eifert can get open downfield. Senior cornerback Cameron Chism will try to contain Floyd, but he is only 5’10”.
Kelly normally likes to score fast, but this may be a game in which ball control is the most effective recipe to keep his hobbled defense off the field. The war of attrition can be won with his offensive line and a few well-placed passes. Wood and Gray could each earn 100 yards if the Irish maintain balance, and the fourth quarter could become an opportunity for Kelly to clear the bench.
MARYLAND’S OFFENSE vs. NOTE DAME’S DEFENSE
Edsall’s teams have historically preferred to run the football, but Maryland has no seniors among its starting offensive linemen. Senior running back Davin Meggett is tough to bring down, but he has taken a beating lately. Freshman Justus Pickett has been brought along to gain experience and will take some of the workload on Saturday. The depleted Irish line performed well against Wake Forest by shutting down the run after the first quarter, and this same group should be able to do the job again this week. Johnson’s return would be a welcome development though.
The Terps spread the ball around in the passing game and have no single receiver who can be classified as exceptional. Wideouts Kevin Dorsey, Kerry Boykins and Quintin McCree have roughly 30 receptions apiece this season and tight end Matt Furstenburg is right behind them with 25. O’Brien has performed well at times, but has not been consistent enough of late to keep Brown on the bench. He has thrown more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (6) but it is Brown’s running ability that has generated the small measure of excitement in Maryland’s recent games. Neither quarterback has impressive passing efficiency numbers, but Brown has a 77 yard touchdown run to his credit and a 7.4 yard average per rush.
Notre Dame has struggled somewhat this year with mobile signal callers and the ankle injuries along its front seven don’t match up well with a scrambler, so Edsall will likely call upon Brown to take most of the snaps even if O’Brien starts the game. Brown appears the give the Terps a better chance on third down, where the team has struggled this season. Maryland’s success rate in the red zone is also below average.
Maryland has a group of solid skill position players but does not deploy a real home run threat. The Irish should be able to stick with a basic defense and win the individual battles with better athletes, provided they are sufficiently motivated. Brown can cause problems but can also be forced into mistakes with pressure.
The Terps have struggled with kick coverage this season, and their return teams are also statistically below average. Pickett and Troy Logan share the return duties, and have managed only an average of 17.4 yards on kickoffs. Notre Dame should enjoy an advantage in this area with George Atkinson and Austin Collinsworth, although the Irish punt return performance is not likely to improve this season.
Nick Ferrera handles both the place kicking and punting chores. Although his punts are adequate, he has struggled in the field goal department. Two of his attempts have been blocked and he has failed to convert from beyond 33 yards. Again, the Irish hold a distinct advantage in this category with David Ruffer.
Both teams are depleted by injuries, but Notre Dame is clearly superior up front on both sides of the ball. Brown and Meggett are capable of causing problems early as Wake Forest was able to do, but the Irish defense should settle in and keep the Terps out of the end zone for much of the night. Kelly should play to his strength in low risk fashion, and the goal should be to escape with a comfortable win absent any additional injuries to his starters.
Maryland will not be able to overplay either the run or pass without serious consequences, and Rees should have plenty of time in the pocket. Vellone, Hampton and Hartsfield are stout in the middle of the defense, but they don’t have much experienced help around them. One might normally be impressed that the Terps have surrendered only eight touchdown passes in nine games, but opponents have scored nearly three times per contest on the ground.
Let’s look at a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will Brown create successful plays against Notre Dame’s conservative defensive alignment?
Can the Irish rush for Maryland’s average yield of 233 yards?
Will a receiver other than Floyd or Eifert have success in the Irish passing game?
Can Golic and the interior of Notre Dame’s offensive line handle Vellone and Hampton?
Which team will be able to pressure the quarterback?
How long will it take the Irish to shut down Meggett and the Maryland ground game?
Will Notre Dame take advantage of the Terps’ beleaguered special teams?
The Irish may not roll up 50 points and win in a blowout, but the final score should only be a formality in what should be a convincing victory. Once again, the health of the Irish players and their level of motivation will determine the degree of success, but Maryland’s will can be broken relatively early in the game. Turnovers always loom in the background as a potential problem, but the Irish should not need exotic, high risk plays to complete their business in the Washington, DC area.
NOTRE DAME 38 MARYLAND 16