Behind Enemy Lines: Maryland vs. SMU

After a strong 2-0 start to the season, the Terps will be wrapping up non-conference play at home against the SMU Mustangs. The Mustangs are also off to a strong 2-0 start to the season so it should be a good game in “The Shell” Saturday night. We asked CJ Olson of Fifth Quarter SMU who is close with the SMU football team some questions as well as answered them from Maryland’s perspective as well.

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IBG: Who are two players on the offense you expect to have a big impact and give the opposing defense problems?

John Gugs: The easy answer would be Taulia Tagovailoa and Dontay Demus, but two player two dark horse players to look out for will be Jacob Copeland and Antwain Littleton. Outside of Rakim Jarrett and Dontay Demus, the Terps have a very good WR option in Copeland. If he, as expected can win his matchups on the third option corner, He should have a big day like he did at Charlotte. Littleton has emerged as the short distance back, but after last week, he showed he can make some big plays as well after taking a run 59 yards to the house. If the Terps ever get in short yardage situations, I fully expect Littleton to be in the backfield and I have the upmost faith he can get the job done every time as well.

CJ Olson: Velton Gardner played in his first game for SMU this past week and pleasantly surprised me. I was anticipating the Kansas transfer to be a good option as a change of pace back in a crowded running back room. But I really think he has the potential to be someone that gives the Mustangs a good 50-75 yards per game on the ground. Super shifty, slippery, and difficult to tackle. Rashee Rice is currently 3rd in the NCAA in receiving yards, I believe. And I don’t think he’s played a fourth quarter yet. It’ll be interesting to see the difference in how Rice looks against a Big Ten secondary compared to North Texas and Lamar’s secondary, but Rice is a talented wideout who’s been in the top 10 in the AAC in receiving yards each of the last two seasons despite four NFL wideouts and tight ends being on the roster during those seasons. Tanner Mordecai felt too much like the obvious answer for who’s going to have an offensive impact, so I went with his favorite target instead.

IBG: What pace do you expect to see from the offense this weekend?

JG: To start it off, I expect to see the Terps open up in a fast paced offense to try and keep SMU from rotating their guys as much as possible ans wear them down for the fourth quarter, but I would not be surprised that if SMU keeps it close, the Terps slow it down a bit to try and keep the very good SMU offense from being on the field so much especially later on in the game.

CJ: They don’t call it the Pony Express for no reason. Coach Lashlee likes to go fast. The last couple of seasons, the pace wasn’t quite as high with Garrett Riley calling the plays, although it was pretty close. But both the offense and the defense are very well conditioned and used to playing up-tempo. Something I appreciate both with Coach Lashlee back when he was the OC in ’18 and ’19 and with Coach Riley in ’20 and ’21 is that neither of them changed tempo going into a game based on the competition. I think sometimes coaches get a little too cute with messing around with tempo when that can only be a marginal benefit at times. If the team is good enough to compete with the other team, and I think SMU is good enough to compete with Maryland, the strategy should be focused on our best versus your best and the X’s and the O’s.

IBG: What defensive scheme does your team run and how can you see it slowing down the opposing offense?

JG: For the most part I believe the Terps will be in more of  4-2-5 on Saturday then anything else due to all the spread and air raid type offense SMU runs to have easier matchups with all the receivers they will have on the field. I will also expect to see quite a bit of dime packages as well where they’ll rotate Hyppolite, Barham and some others as the one linebacker on the field. The more defensive backs we have on the field this week the better I believe we will be. The last thing you want is a linebacker matched up with a speedy guy out of the slot which SMU sure has and I trust that our defensive backs can win their matchups for the most part Saturday. But to help out the defensive backs, our pass rush will need to get home more then they have in the past two weeks. They should be getting to the quarterback in some way at least half the time to make him as uncomfortable as possible.

CJ: New defensive coordinator Scott Symons has shown to be an upgrade over his predecessor thus far. The sense, though, is that the first two games have intentionally been vanilla. It’ll be interesting to see overall how the defense adjusts to going from North Texas and Lamar to Maryland, TCU, and UCF these next three games. Personally I think we see a lot more out of the defense in terms of diversity of schemes and blitz packages. Considering the pass rush has just been OK the first two weeks, I’m excited to see what that scheme looks like. If I had to guess, a lot of it is going to be a Cover 3 shell with varying stunts and looping blitzers to keep Maryland guessing.

IBG : On defense, who do you believe will be the two most impactful players in slowing the opposing offense down?

JG: Durrell Nchami and Ruben Hyppolite are two players I expect to have big games this weekend. Nchami in the offseason was getting lots of hype around him as a pass rusher but so far this season he has only recorded one tackle. I’m hoping and expecting that he will prove the hype to be worth it and show up in a big way Saturday. Hyppolite is a bulky and very quick linebacker that is good at stopping the run and is solid in pass coverage which I’m sure he will be in quite a bit this weekend. If he ends up one on one with a running back out the backfield or a tight end I have faith he will be able to stick with his man and not let up any big plays.

CJ: Defensive lineman DeVere Levelston is going to potentially be missing the first half for a targeting call towards the end of the 3rd quarter of the game against Lamar. The expectation is that the team and conference will appeal the first half suspension, but if the team does lose Levelston for the first half, that’ll be a noticeable loss for the defensive line. And considering the general scouting report on Taulia Tagovailoa is to try to get pressure to force him to be uncomfortable, missing your best 3-tech puts you behind the 8-ball. As a result, defensive linemen Elijah Chatman and Gary Wiley are going to have to take on more of the workload. Chatman was First Team All-AAC last season, but was quiet against North Texas. Again, this was likely more a product of keeping the defense simple, a strategy that worked well and held UNT to 10 points. Wiley also was relatively quiet against North Texas. But both Chatman and Wiley were the top graded starters, per PFF, against Lamar. So clearly the talent is still there. I think once the defensive playbook is wide open, the two of them are really going to show out and anchor this defense. Once Levelston comes back in the second half (or hopefully sooner), this defensive line really has the capability of frustrating even some of the best offensive lines.

IBG: In close games like this is expected to be, the kicking game can end up being a big factor. On a scale of 1-10 how much trust do you have in your team’s kickers?

JG: After watching Chad Ryland during warm ups before the Buffalo game, easily it’s a ten. The kid has a monster of a leg and is coming off career best season where he was 86.4% in field goals made. And he has already made a long of 45 yards this season and I saw the video of him making field goals from 60 yards and above so I really have nothing but trust in Ryland if it comes down to making a field goal to win it.

CJ: Generally speaking, SMU has some great special teams. At kicker is true freshman Collin Rogers. Rogers was rated by Kohl’s Kicking as the #4 kicker in the last class, and has lived up to the hype in the limited sample thus far. The 5-star is two-for-two on field goals and six-for-six on extra points. In 2021, the Mustangs had Blake Mazza who was good. And in 2020, the Mustangs had Chris Naggar, who was great. It looks like Rogers is the next in a line of good kickers. Obviously college kickers have become a meme of sorts in the college football community, so I want to be fair to Rogers and temper expectations, but on a scale of 1 to 10, so far I have a confidence of between a 7 and an 8 in him thus far. He’s given us no reason not to rely on him.

IBG: How do you predict the game to go and why?

JG: I would be lying if I said I was not nervous heading into this game. SMU has a high powered and very fast paced offense that can put up a lot of points. And I know it’s hard to gameplan for a quarterback that has never started before but giving up 21 points to Charlotte last week I was kind of disappointed about that. Having Tarheeb Still out this game will hurt us. While I still believe in our guys behind him in the DM room, it’s hard to admit they’re on the level Still is. This game I feel is gong to be a shootout. It feels like a first to 35 wins it type of game. With the Terps still building chemistry in the secondary and having a new DC I would truthfully be shocked if the Terps hold SMU to 20 or less. But with all that said I don’t see the SMU defense stopping the Terps offense enough times to win so I have the Terps winning it 41-37.

CJ: I think SMU has a good chance in this game. I think that it’s going to come down to what this new defense looks like (especially the defensive line, which has been the strength of this defense for a couple years). The good news about keeping it vanilla is that Maryland will have to probably split their time looking at a combination of SMU’s 2021 tape and Liberty’s 2021 tape (Coach Symons’ last stop) to truly get an idea of what this defense could look like. The bad news about keeping it vanilla is that there is no game film for SMU to break down to address concerns and mistakes that you only can really notice by looking at real game film. SMU’s offense has also struggled a little to run between the tackles and get the push it needs at times, but it’s nowhere near the point of concern for me. I believe that neither the offense nor the defense has truly attempted to punch another team in the mouth with full force, nor do I believe that the offense nor the defense has truly gotten punched in the mouth yet. And how a team responds to both of those says a lot about what that team can be. So, it’s a little challenging to make a game prediction, but ultimately I’m landing on SMU winning 35-31.

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