The West Virginia Mountaineers and Maryland Terrapins are set to renew their rivalry on Saturday in College Park. The programs haven’t met on the field since 2015, when WVU’s 45-6 victory gave the Mountaineers a 28-22-2 lead in the series. West Virginia has won nine of the previous 10 games in a rivalry that dates to 1919.
Led by one of the best defenses in the country, West Virginia posted a 6-4 record in 2020, including a 4-4 mark in Big 12 play. The Mountaineers beat Army 24-21 in the Liberty Bowl to secure a winning record for head coach Neal Brown in his second season. Maryland head coach Mike Locksley is still searching for his first winning record after his Terrapins lost a 27-24 heartbreaker to Rutgers in the final game of the season. Maryland finished 2-3 in its Big Ten-only schedule, giving Locksley a 6-17 record in two years at the helm. But like West Virginia, the Terps enter 2021 with hopes of making it to a bowl game.
West Virginia at Maryland
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: West Virginia -3
When West Virginia Has the Ball
The Mountaineers improved their rushing attack from 73.3 yards per game in 2019 to 135.1 last season, a notable increase despite ranking eighth in the Big 12 and No. 92 nationally. Leddie Brown led the way with 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns on 199 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. Brown returns, though he’ll work behind an offensive line that’s still under construction.
Quarterback Jarret Doege completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 2,587 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions. On the surface, Doege put up solid passing numbers (WVU ranked third in the Big 12 with 277.5 yards per game), and he proved to be a steady presence during the regular season. However, Doege was benched in the bowl game as Brown turned to Austin Kendall, who led the Mountaineers to a come-from-behind victory. Doege has retained the starting job (Kendall transferred to Louisiana Tech this summer), and he'll be supported by an experienced receiving corps returning, including top wideouts Winston Wright Jr. (45 rec., 529 yds., 2 TDs) and Bryce Ford-Wheaton (27, 416, 3).
When Maryland Has the Ball
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa managed only 94 passing yards on 3.8 yards per attempt with three interceptions in his first career start against Northwestern. But he bounced back with a combined 676 yards, 11.1 yards per pass attempt, and 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Penn State. He then took another step back against Indiana, completing fewer than half of his passes with three picks. The Alabama transfer was unable to play in the finale against Rutgers, a 27-24 loss. Tagovailoa possesses tantalizing talent, and his connection with receivers Dontay Demus Jr. (24 rec., 365 yds., 4 TDs) and Rakim Jarrett (17, 252, 2) should continue to blossom in his first full season as the starter. But Tua's younger brother must become more consistent.
A steady rushing attack would help. Jake Funk ranked second in the Big Ten with 129.0 rushing yards per game, but he's now in the NFL and experienced options return. Tayon Fleet-Davis, who gained 26 yards on 10 attempts in the only game he played, is expected to be the top option in the backfield. Peny Boone ranked second last season with 86 rushing yards but has missed time in fall camp with an injury and may not play Saturday. Sacks limited Tagovailoa’s numbers to 44 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 26 attempts, but he can be a weapon on the ground, as evidenced by his two scores in the win over Minnesota.
West Virginia and Maryland are two evenly matched teams, but the Mountaineers have been more consistent, especially on defense. WVU led the nation in passing defense (159.4 ypg), led the Big 12 and ranked fourth overall in total defense (291.4 ypg), and topped the conference and ranked No. 21 in scoring defense (26.5 ppg). The advanced stats were solid as well: The Mountaineers ranked No. 8 in success rate (34.0 percent) and No. 12 in Expected Points Added per play (-0.128), according to cfb-graphs.com.
The Mountaineers were able to break through for a winning record last year. But WVU also must replace some of its best defenders, including fifth-round NFL draft pick Tony Fields, and transfers Dreshun Miller, Tykee Smith, and Jeffery Pooler Jr. The offensive line is a work in progress, though the addition of Virginia Tech transfer Doug Nester should help. And after Doege was benched in the bowl game, it will be important to see how he looks in his first start of 2021.
Maryland has a talented roster. By recent recruiting class rankings, one could argue the Terrapins are actually more talented than West Virginia. The Terps have upside, but Tagovailoa must improve his decision-making and take better care of the football. The defense also needs to take a step forward after ranking 115th in the country against the run (230.0 ypg), 85th in total defense (430.0 ypg), 80th in scoring (32.0 ppg), and 80th in points per drive allowed (2.52).
Home-field advantage will help, but it’s difficult to trust Maryland. The game should be close, but West Virginia should come out on top.
Prediction: West Virginia 28, Maryland 27
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