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WVU Football Week 1 Opponent Preview: Don’t Expect an Easy Game from Maryland

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Jake Funk is what college football is all about. The two-star recruit out of Damascus High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland received little Power Five interest despite a highly successful scholastic career, garnering interest from the service academies and the Ivy League.

With offers from Wisconsin and Maryland at the P5 level, he chose his close-to-home option of the Terrapins. After promising freshman and sophomore seasons in which Funk played well in limited opportunities, his collegiate career took a couple of hits. He tore his ACL three games into his junior season and then, after finally appearing to break out in a triumphant redshirt-junior season, he tore his ACL again three games into that season, too.

In the midst of the most chaotic season of college football, perhaps ever, Funk was finally healthy enough to put together a full season — even if it was only five games.

Despite COVID-19 ravaging Maryland’s 2020 schedule, Funk led the Terps with 516 yards on 60 carries (8.6 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns. He also caught 10 passes out of the backfield. His successful season was parlayed into a seventh-round selection by the Los Angeles Rams in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Funk made the Rams’ roster, fulfilled a life-long dream and accomplished it all against the odds. And now, virtually all of Maryland’s rushing production from 2020 is gone, too.

West Virginia football will play Maryland in College Park, Maryland Saturday afternoon to open both teams’ 2021-22 seasons, and with a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on ESPN, their “rivalry” will once again reach national audiences.

Coming off a 2-3 season in 2020, with four games outright canceled last season, Maryland returns an inconsistent team that should be as good, if not better than it was in 2020 even with a big loss on offense and defense. The Terrapins defeated Minnesota in a wild 45-44 overtime shootout and “upset” a subpar Penn State team in Happy Valley while being blown out by a good Northwestern team, losing to a good Indiana team and suffering an overtime loss to Rutgers last season.

So, what can WVU expect from Maryland in one of the first games of the 2021-22 season?

Taulia Tagovailoa Headlines An Inconsistent Offense

Funk rushed for 516 yards in 2020, the rest of Maryland rushed for 213 yards. Even with Funk, the Terps were barely a Top 10 rushing team in the B1G last season, and with him gone, a lot of slack is going to fall to Terps quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa.

Tagovailoa, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound junior, is the younger brother of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Originally beginning his career with Alabama, he transferred to Maryland last season and experienced a mixed bag of results in his first season as a starter.

In four games, Tagovailoa completed 75 of 122 passing attempts for 1,011 yards at a clip of 61.5%. He threw for seven touchdowns but also threw for seven interceptions and isn’t going to offer anything on the ground. Maryland will live and die by Tagovailoa’s arm in 2021, and he’s expected to take a big step forward — maybe it’s fortunate he isn’t able to gain some momentum before playing the Mountaineers.

Fortunately for him, he’s equipped with one of the best wide receiving duos in the B1G in former five-star recruit Rakim Jarrett and last season’s leading receiver Dontay Demus and a new offensive coordinator in former Cincinnati assistant Dan Enos.

While Demus led the Terps with 24 catches for 365 yards and four touchdowns, Jarrett is the key cog in Maryland’s offense. An excellent true freshman season, recording 17 catches for 252 yards and two touchdowns, should blossom into a season where Jarrett transforms into a true three-dimensional threat for the Terps, excelling as a runner, receiver and returner.

When it comes to the WVU game, expect Tagovailoa to throw the ball 35 or more times, routinely targetting Jarrett and Demus in a game that could easily jump into the 30s or 40s in scoring. Without a legitimate rushing threat, sophomore Peny Boone and senior Tayon Fleet-Davis leading the backfield, it’s going to be an aerial assault on the Mountaineers.

What to Expect From a Veteran Maryland Defense?

In a similar parallel to WVU, Maryland lost their best defender in 2020 to an SEC team when linebacker Chance Campbell transferred to Ole Miss. Campbell led the Terps with 42 tackles (23 solo) and 5.5 tackles for loss and finished tied for third with 1.5 sacks in four games last season.

While WVU lost safety Tykee Smith to Georgia, it wasn’t like WVU featured a bad defense that was left even thinner. Unlike WVU, Maryland’s defense in 2020 was not very good. Allowing 32 points and 430 yards per game, both bottom five in the conference, Maryland’s defense didn’t offer much help for the Terps’ offense last season.

With 10 starters returning — minus Campbell — on the defense this season, it’s a veteran group for the Terps, but the group isn’t likely to experience a breakthrough and turn into a defense that should lock down an improved Mountaineers’ offense.

The Terps allowed a B1G second-worst 230.0 rushing yards per game and 14 touchdowns in just five games — good news for WVU senior running back Leddie Brown. However, the Terps’ passing defense limited opposing teams to just 200.0 yards per game and 6.1 yards per attempt.

WVU redshirt quarterback Jarret Doege isn’t someone who’s going to take unnecessary risks with the ball, so for a defense that forced just two interceptions last season, the WVU passing attack — if they build early chemistry — should be able to protect the ball. Yet, with a pass rush that sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times in five games, and should only get better with everyone on the front returning, the Terps’ secondary should have even more help in giving the secondary more help up front.

Regardless of a solid Maryland pass rush, the Terps’ defense isn’t going to win many games alone. With Brown in place for the Mountaineers, he should be well-equipped for a strong start to his senior season and should help open the offense up for Doege and the wideouts in a potentially high-scoring opening game.

Players to Watch for Maryland

On offense, you’re going to be watching Tagovailoa on every play. It would be easy — and correct — to name him their most important player. And for good reason, as the team will rise and fall with his potential progression, but it’ll be Jarrett who truly makes a difference for the Terps.

In the “upset” of Penn State last season, Jarrett caught five passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns in just his third college football game. With a full offseason and increased chemistry with Tagovailoa, he should be a challenge for WVU’s revamped secondary.

Of course, honorable mentions to Demus and Boone, too.

On defense, the x-factor will be the defensive back duo of Nick Cross and Tarheeb Still. Cross recorded 23 tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack and three passes defended while Still recorded 20 tackles and a team-high eight passes defended. The Terps’ secondary should be the defensive strength against the Mountaineers, and the aforementioned duo will likely be a big reason why.

End Game

WVU matches up well, on paper, against the Terps, but Maryland’s offensive capabilities could range from mediocrity to an all-out offensive explosion on any given week. Brown should have a strong game for the Mountaineers, paving the way for a strong overall offensive showing from the Mountaineers against a subpar defense.

The Maryland offense, particularly a quick, deep receiving corps, will be an early test for a WVU defense that is retooling in the secondary. However, the end result should still be a WVU victory.

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