Behind Enemy Lines: Alex Prewitt, Washington Post

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@postandcourier.com
@Aaron_Brenner | Tiger Tracks on Facebook

CLEMSON — Once again, we turn our attention to a beat writer who knows more about Clemson’s opponent than you and I combined, and then some.

This week’s a special week personally, since Alex Prewitt writes for the Washington Post, the newspaper that employed one of my mentors Leonard Shapiro for decades. Just as Lenny’s a well-spoken, cerebral fellow, Alex gives thoughtful answers to five questions on one of the more interesting teams in the ACC this fall, Maryland.

Aaron Brenner, Post and Courier: What exactly did Maryland turn around so quickly, eclipsing 2012′s win total before mid-October?

Alex Prewitt, Washington Post: In a word, the Terps became healthy. When quarterback C.J. Brown returned from the preseason ACL tear suffered last summer, he brought a stability to the offense Maryland never enjoyed in 2012. It was a medical calamity in College Park last season, one that basically absolved anyone of any blame. After Brown, three other quarterbacks suffered season-ending injuries, which basically torpedoed any chance the Terps had of bowl eligibility. They finished the season on a six-game losing streak. They lost more players along the way, particularly on a once-strong defense that exhausted itself trying to pick up the slack left behind by the injured offense. So a healthy team, combined with some rather subpar non-conference opponents, helped Maryland reach five wins rather fast. Bear in mind, however, that Randy Edsall still hasn’t won a game this late into the season since he arrived from Connecticut, so it hasn’t exactly been a total turnaround just yet. With the new injuries, the Terps have plenty of work ahead to avoid tumbling down the mountainside. Bowl eligibility is still one victory away, but the road just got much tougher.

Brenner: Clemson over Georgia and Miami over Florida are up there as among the ACC’s most impressive non-conference victories, but so were the Terrapins over West Virginia in Baltimore. How’d Maryland get it done?

Prewitt: West Virginia was not very good that day. Terrible, in fact. The Mountaineers turned it around the next week by beating Oklahoma State, a win that probably helped Maryland crack the top 25 for the first time in three years, but what happened at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore was a rather putrid showing by them. Maryland’s defense was outstanding, holding West Virginia to 175 total yards and recovering four fumbles. The Terps’ offense did enough to secure the blowout, even though their execution on a rather rainy afternoon wasn’t quite top-notch. Everything came together to help Maryland break a seven-game losing streak and keep it undefeated entering its first bye, in rather impressive fashion too.

Brenner: Could you try to explain the situation at quarterback, with C.J. Brown and Caleb Rowe listed as co-starters?

Prewitt: I can try. So here’s what we know: Against Florida State on Oct. 5, Brown suffered a concussion just before halftime. He left that game and never returned. The next week, Rowe started on Brown’s stead, because Brown hadn’t quite passed all necessary protocol implemented from team doctors for concussion recovery. After the Terps beat Virginia by one point on a late missed field goal, Brown returned to practice that Sunday. He prepared for the Wake Forest game as the starter, but was removed shortly into the second half for reasons at the time unknown. The Demon Deacons intercepted Brown twice, sacked him three times and drilled him into the turf on plenty more occasions. Turns out, Brown suffered a new injury, undisclosed but certainly unrelated to his concussion. This injury has caused the confusion under center. Edsall generally addresses injuries on Thursday before the report comes out later that afternoon, but I’d expect this to be a game-time decision, if only so Maryland can keep things secret to confuse Clemson.

Brenner: Will this rash of injuries sink the Terrapins, or do they have enough depth to keep up with that next tier of ACC squads after FSU/Miami/Clemson?

Prewitt: Maybe. I don’t think Saturday’s game will be the best barometer of that, nor might a Nov. 9 home matchup against bottom-feeder Syracuse after Maryland’s second bye. The drop-off from Stefon Diggs and Deon Long (both broke their legs against Wake Forest) will be significant enough to warrant plenty of national attention, but Levern Jacobs and Amba Etta haven’t gotten many chances in first-string roles this season, so I’ll defer on judging them until later. More concerning is the current injury problems playing the Terps defense, where both starting cornerbacks are still out, as well as several key nicked-up linebackers in Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil (out for the season with a torn pectoralis), Alex Twine (labrum, future status unknown), Matt Robinson (rotator cuff, likely out until after the bye) and L.A. Goree (back spasms, missed the Wake Forest game). If cornerback Jeremiah Johnson (fractured toe), Robinson, Goree and Twine all return healthy against Syracuse, then the defense can help carry the Terps towards bowl eligibility. If not, road games at Virginia Tech and North Carolina State, plus the home finale against pesky Boston College, will be even harder challenges than before.

Brenner: What does Maryland need to do to upset Clemson on Saturday?

Prewitt: Pressure Tajh Boyd into oblivion. Maryland’s sack total has plummeted since conference play began, as has its takeaway rate. The Terps haven’t forced a turnover in three conference games so far, and need to help this depleted offense. Without corners Johnson and Dexter McDougle (season-ending shoulder surgery) around, the task of defending Sammy Watkins should fall to true freshman Will Likely, who handled Wake’s Michael Campanaro last week with decidedly mixed results. Basically, if Maryland can constantly pressure Boyd, it can at least hope it can force some back-breaking mistakes.

On offense, if Brown is healthy, the Terps need to establish the run early and let the fifth-year junior execute the read option. Its third-down conversion rate and red-zone conversion rate during conference games haven’t quite matched expectations, so Maryland must be nearly perfect in those areas to have a chance at upsetting the Tigers. Of course, I’d fully expected a ticked-off Clemson team to march into Byrd Stadium looking for a punching bag after what happened in Death Valley last weekend, and the Tigers may find one in this banged-up Terps bunch.

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