Maryland faces a familiar opponent this Saturday as the Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders trek to Byrd Stadium for a rematch of last year's contest in Murfreesboro.
This time, the Terps are hoping for a better result.
Last season, the Blue Raiders capitalized on three Chris Turner interceptions and a nearly two-to-one time of possession advantage to deal the Terps a frustrating 24-14 defeat, their first of the season. Middle Tennessee quarterback Joe Craddock threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns to pace the Blue Raiders' offense. The shocking loss followed a mediocre effort in a 14-7 season opening victory over Delaware.
The Terps have also stumbled out of the gate in 2009. After allowing Heisman hopeful Jahvid Best to run through them for 137 yards in a 52-13 drubbing at Cal in the opener, Maryland needed to scratch and claw to earn a 38-35 overtime victory against Division 1-AA James Madison in their home debut.
Even in the win, the Terps yielded 268 yards rushing and were outgained 417-359. James Madison quarterback Drew Dudzik accounted for 112 of the yards on the ground, including a 70-yard touchdown.
Middle Tennessee poses a similar challenge for the Maryland defense with dual-threat quarterback Dwight Dasher, the team's leading passer and rusher, who has replaced the graduated Craddock. Dasher is the biggest threat for a running game that averages a mere 3.2 yards per carry. The Blue Raiders' already modest ground attack will also be hampered by the loss of senior running back Phillip Tanner to injury.
Through the air this season, Dasher's first two performances have been nearly opposites of each other. At Clemson he struggled to lead Middle Tennessee's spread offense, completing only 20 of 42 attempts for 204 yards with three interceptions as the Blue raiders fell 37-14. He rebounded nicely against Memphis, however, going 18 for 26 for 231 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in a 31-14 win.
Dasher's favorite targets have been receivers Shane Blissard and Patrick Honeycutt. Blissard, a sophomore, has made big plays early on this year. He hauled in a 43-yard completion at Clemson and followed that up with a 40-yarder last week against Memphis. Honeycutt, on the other hand, has not made the big plays that Blissard has, but his nine receptions are a team best. Receivers Sancho McDonald, Desmond Gee, Chris McClover, and Garrett Andrews will also contribute to the Blue Raiders' spread attack.
This group of receivers will look to exploit a Maryland secondary weakened by the loss of senior starting cornerback Nolan Carroll. Carroll had to be carted off the field with a broken tibia against James Madison. Sophomore Cameron Chism, who is behind Carroll on the depth chart, is the likely candidate to start in his place. The Terps' secondary, as well as the rest of the defense, is looking to finally get on the board in the forced turnover department this week.
On the offensive side of the ball, Maryland would like to see improved line play.
The inexperienced group has struggled through the first two games, yielding seven sacks and leading a sputtering running game to an average of 3.5 yards per carry. Six of the sacks were against Cal, so the line did step up their pass protection against JMU. Maryland also improved their yards per carry average by over half a yard in their second game. However, these improvements may also reflect the difference in talent between Cal and James Madison.
But if the line can play better, the Terps will try to pound the ball with Da'Rel Scott and Davin Meggett. Scott was one of the few bright spots in last year's loss to Middle Tennessee (123 yards on 11 carries, TD). His 63-yard touchdown run in the first quarter briefly tied the game at 7.
An effective running game will help take some of the pressure off QB Chris Turner. His disastrous three-pick performance against the Blue Raiders was the key factor in last year's loss. Turner needs to avoid crucial turnovers, such as last week's interception returned for a touchdown by James Madison's Jon Williams.
Turner and his receivers also need to produce some big plays in the passing game. With the departure of Darrius Heyward-Bey to the NFL, it is important for other receivers to step up and make big plays. Torrey Smith, Adrian Cannon, and Ronnie Tyler have been solid, dependable receivers in the early going, yet they have lacked the big gainers over the first two games. The team has yet to have a pass completion of 30 yards.
The Terps will attack a Middle Tennessee defense that has kept offenses in check in their first two games. The Blue Raiders defense was solid against Clemson, surrendering only 159 yards in the air and forcing two turnovers. They did struggle to stop the run though, giving up 202 yards. However, they improved in all facets of the game in a dominating performance against Memphis. The Tigers could only muster 219 yards of total offense and failed to gain 100 yards rushing.
Senior DE Chris McCoy has been a strong presence on the defensive line, contributing eight tackles and a sack. McCoy recovered a fumble and returned it 68 yards for a touchdown in the Clemson game. Senior LB Cam Robinson chipped in with 12 tackles and a sack in the first two contests. Junior S Jeremy Kellem, who has shown a knack for making big plays on the defensive side in his career (5 INT, 5 FF), will also be a factor.
The Terps will look to continue their recent success at Byrd Stadium. In 2008, Maryland was 6-1 at home. Including the victory over JMU, they are 8-1 in their last nine non-conference home games dating back to 2006.