North Carolina kicks off its 2012 finale against Maryland at approximately 3:00 pm from Kenan Stadium Saturday. It could be the last time in a long time that the Terrapins come to Chapel Hill for football, as the move to the Big Ten decreases the likelihood of any UNC-MD matchups in Kenan Stadium in the near future.
TerrapinTimes.com reporter Dave Lomonico was kind enough to answer several questions for Tar Heel Illustrated about Saturday's opponent, who comes into the finale ailing with a five-game losing streak.
Maryland has had a tough second year under coach Randy Edsall, magnified by the program's five-game losing streak down the stretch this year. What has been some of the issues that has led to this year's late-season crumble?
How long do you have? The issues are manifold and some go deeper than just what you see on the field. But here's the short version of it. Maryland entered the season as a young team decimated by transfers who decided to leave the program -- namely quarterback Danny O'Brien and their two starting tackles, R.J. Dill and Max Garcia.
The youth, combined with a lack of depth, left the squad without much room for error, and eventually that caught up to them. Add in the fact that Maryland might be the most snake-bit team in the country in terms of injuries -- history books show no other team in history has ever lost four quarterbacks in a season like UMD has this year -- and it was not a recipe for sustained success.
With a linebacker in Shawn Petty now playing quarterback, Maryland's offensive game plan, which was already limited with so much youth on that side of the ball, has been reduced even more. Moreover, the offensive line, which now has five first-year starters, has not played well all year, allowing 38 sacks and paving the way for a ground attack averaging 2.4 yards per carry.
Defensively, Maryland has held its own, but even it has shown signs of wearing down as the season has moved along. Plus the team's top tackler, linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield, went down three weeks ago with a torn ACL.
It should also be noted the toughest part of Maryland's schedule was in the season's second half. Hardly any ACC teams have looked good against Florida State and Clemson this year.
Much has been said about Maryland's difficulties at the quarterback position, which has included moving guys from other positions under center. How has the QB situation at Maryland affected this season and the team's ability to compete?
As I said above, it's been a killer. If incumbent C.J. Brown would have been healthy all year, Maryland would likely have six victories right now and be bowl eligible. But when Brown went down with a season-ending injury, it forced Maryland to pare down the playbook to fit the experience level and skill-sets of the freshmen/novice backups.
Perry Hills was OK, and he showed that he could manage the offense and even make a few plays here and there. But then he went down with a torn ACL, too. In his place stepped Devin Burns, who couldn't really throw but was a major threat to run.
Maryland thought they might be able to survive with Burns running the read option, but he didn't even last a full game before suffering a season-ender. Fourth-stringer Caleb Rowe, another freshman, might have showed the biggest arm of the bunch, and he was a pleasant surprise for a week. But, wouldn't you know it, he goes down with a season-ending foot injury as well.
Which left Maryland with a linebacker in Shawn Petty, who quarterbacked a triple option offense in high school, under center. Needless to say, defenses were ready to tell off. Florida State was licking its chops.
UNC knows a thing or two about struggling on defense, but it seems that Maryland has played significantly better on that side of the ball this season than on offense. Who are the key defensive players for Maryland, and why has that side of the ball been so much better than the Terrapin offense?
I'll answer the second part first. Maryland brought in a new defensive coordinator this year in Brian Stewart, who implemented a 3-4 scheme that was based on gap control, flying to the football and limiting yards after contact. It's a disciplined, controlled system that requires teamwork, gang tackling and the like.
Fortunately for Maryland, the defenders all bought in, and as a result the unit has thrived. No one has outstanding individual stats, but collectively they know if they work together and play withing themselves, they'll have success. Granted, the defense has worn down the last few weeks, and the tackling has been shoddy, but for the majority of the season they've played well.
One of the keys to the defense was linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield, who led the team in tackles. He was a captain and a leader, so when he went down with a torn ACL, that hurt.
Besides him, defensive end Joe Vellano is an All-American who does a great job setting the edge and busting up the backfield. Defensive tackle A.J. Francis has done very well getting a step on his man, and nose Darius Kilgo has eaten up blockers practically all year.
Linebackers Darin Drakeford and Cole Farrand have both proven to be adequate in run defense, and cornerback Jeremiah Johnson is the team's best secondary player with 16 combined pass breakups/knockdown.
Despite Maryland's offensive woes, freshman receiver Stefon Diggs has been a real bright spot for the Terrapins, kind of like UNC freshman wideout Quinshad Davis. What has made Diggs so strong this season, and how can he hurt UNC's defense and on special teams?
Diggs is just a playmaker, plain and simple. He's one of those types who has all the physical tools -- speed, moves, hands, etc. -- and combines them with a fierce desire to compete and win.
He's a risk taker who believes he can't be stopped, kind of like a three-point marksman who shoots and shoots even if he's having an off night.
Eventually, if given enough chances, he's going to catch fire and make a defense/special team pay. Get him the ball on bubble screens, handoffs, etc., and he'll bust out a few moves, break a few ankles and maybe, just maybe take it the distance. Same goes for special teams. He's one of those guys where if he's given a shard of daylight he can split the seam and make the unit pay.
Although Maryland has struggled late in the year they did beat Wake Forest, who UNC lost to. They also knocked off Virginia and competed well against decent teams like West Virginia and Connecticut. What will it take for the Terrapins to give UNC a game Saturday and have a chance at victory?
Petty is going to have to manage the game and continue to grow into the quarterback position. He can't hold onto the ball too long, fumble it away or throw it up for grabs. Then the offensive line is going to at least do a respectable job giving the running backs lanes to run through (not to mention keeping Petty upright).
Defensively, UMD has to revert to its pre-Florida State/Clemson/Georgia Tech selves and tackle well and limit yards after contact. The secondary has been susceptible this year, so they can't allow the big play. If Maryland can limit the turnovers, run the football and play solid defense by forcing UNC to drive the length of the field, they've got a shot.
What is the feeling in Maryland about moving to the Big Ten, and how it will permanently and unalterably affect its long-time ACC rivalries with schools like North Carolina? Are the Maryland fans glad to give up schools like UNC in favor of the Michigans, Ohio States, and Penn States of the Big Ten?
The feelings have been all over the board, to tell you the truth. A lot of older fans and alumni were angry, at least initially, because UMD gave up almost 60 years of tradition. One Terps great, Tom McMillan, said that the university made too rash of a decision without thinking it through or discussing it with a larger percentage of the fan base. No doubt a lot of fans loved and looked forward to the matchups with North Carolina, Duke and Virginia. Those will certainly be missed, that's for sure.
At the same time, a good portion of the fanbase realized that the school was losing money, had just cut seven athletic programs, had luxury suites it couldn't fill and faced a myriad of other financial issues. The school's president, Wallace Loh, basically came out and said they were living paycheck to paycheck.
They didn't want to have to cut any more sports, and they didn't want to continue sufficing with inferior facilities for some of the other varsity teams, so the move to the Big Ten became the best avenue to generate revenue. Once fans realized that and took a look at the bigger picture, they started to accept the idea, even though traditions would be lost. Most, I think, are ready to carve out a new niche in the Big Ten and establish a new set of rivalries with those schools.