It all comes down to this. Both Maryland and Boston College have their Atlantic Division title chances on the line this Saturday at Alumni Stadium. Here's what you need to know if you're a BC fan: the Eagles must win their last two games, and have Wake Forest lose their last two for BC to be crowned Atlantic Division Champions.
Here's what you need to know if you're a Maryland fan: The Terps must win their last two games or they must defeat WF and hope BC loses to Miami. In other words, Maryland definitely wants to take care of business this weekend and eliminate the Eagles from the Atlantic Division race.
The Terps come into this game with some Houdini-like escape victories over the last two weeks. Last weekend, Maryland held off Miami 14-13, in spite of the fact that the Terps gained only six first down on offense the entire game. The week before that against Clemson, Dan Ennis booted a 31-yard field goal as time expired to give Maryland a 13-12 upset at Death Valley. The kick came on the heels of Clemson kicking a go-ahead field goal with just over 2:00 remaining.
The Eagles don't come in with quite the same momentum that Maryland does. After dropping a tough game to WF, BC looked pretty sluggish against Duke last weekend. All signs are that the team will be fired up for action this weekend.
Not to pat myself on the back, but in my season preview I selected Maryland as the top sleeper candidate to win the division. Why would I do this? Find out below...
When Maryland rushes: Advantage Boston College
This is one of the more intriguing match ups, because both BC's rushing defense and Maryland's rushing offense has struggled lately. The real question will be which team is more likely to straighten out their problems first?
BC's rush defense over the last two weeks has been pretty mediocre, and is an area of concern. Against Duke the Eagles allowed 170 yards on the ground, and against WF they allowed 160. Yes, a lot of that had to do with the fact that Duke and WF each had one huge running play to bolster their numbers (Duke 52, WF 81), but you have to also consider the fact that they were the longest runs that either team had all year.
If BC can't straighten out their run defense it might be a long day. Maryland has one of the better running back tandems in the ACC in Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore. Ball has been the featured back for most of the year and leads the team with 630 yards rushing. Lately, Ball has been sharing the load with Lattimore who is more of a home run threat than Ball.
Maryland came into the season returning all five starting lineman from last season. Last weekend starting guard Donnie Woods went down against Miami with a neck injury. Even though the Terps still have their four other starting lineman healthy, the loss of Woods is huge. If Woods didn't get injured I'd probably give the edge to Maryland in this match up. Unfortunately for Maryland, the injury to Woods gives them something extra to straighten out in their running game.
When Maryland passes: Advantage Maryland
If you can say one thing about senior quarterback Sam Hollenbach it's that he's very efficient. With only two games remaining in the season, Hollenbach has thrown only six interceptions, and has a 62% completion percentage. He's one of those quarterbacks that does a good job managing the game.
If Hollenbach is looking for a big play then there's a good chance he'll be throwing to Darrius Heyward-Bey. Heyward-Bey is only a redshirt freshman, but he leads the Terps in all of their receiving categories with 34 catches for 539 yards. Those yards rank Heyward-Bey 3rd in the ACC in receiving yards per game. One thing that has to be a concern for BC is Heyward's 6'3" frame, as it makes it hard to defend him on deep balls, and "jump ball" type of passes..
As this season has worn on, BC has started to do a little better job with their pass defense. The pass rush from the defensive line has gotten better and forced opposing quarterbacks to hurry their passes and make mistakes. Unfortunately, Hollenbach is the type of quarterback that's not going to fall into BC's trap and make a lot of mistakes. He'll take what the defense gives him, which in this case will amount to at least 200-225 yards passing.
When Boston College runs: Advantage Maryland
Yes, BC did a tremendous job on the ground Saturday against Duke. However, I think my colleague John Boyle said it best this week when he said, "There was a lot of talk about 'fixing' the running game after the abysmal performance the week before against Wake Forest. But against teams like Duke, you don't 'fix' anything. You simply run them over and don't look back and that is exactly what the Eagles did to the Blue Devils run defense." In other words, it won't be as easy for BC to run against Maryland.
Now I know that Maryland is ranked 11th in the ACC in rushing defense. However, they've been improving in that department each week. For instance, take the Clemson game, where the Terps held superstars James Davis and C.J. Spiller to a combined 29 carries for 131 yards. Or take last week, when Miami tried pounding the ball 46 times on the ground but only came away with 180 yards rushing(less than 4 ypc). Don't forget also that Erin Henderson and Wesley Jefferson lead the way for a linebacking core that's one of the best in the ACC.
One major concern for BC is that with the injury to center Kevin Sheridan, Josh Beekman will have to move over from guard to center. Beekman has shown he's not nearly as good playing at the center position, as he is at guard. This was painfully evident against NC State earlier in the season, when Beekman was dominated by Tank Tyler. Maryland's nose tackle Dre Moore isn't as dominant as Tyler, but he's still pretty talented, and could cause problems for BC.
When Boston College Passes: Advantage Boston College
This is really the area of the game that could seal a victory for Boston College. The Eagles come in with the No. 1-ranked passing offense in the ACC, and there's no reason to believe that this trend will be stopped against Maryland.
Although the Terps have some highly recruited players in their secondary they haven't really been able to put all of their talent together. Their secondary play has been pretty average all season. Recently Xavier Lee of FSU threw for 286 yards and Will Proctor threw for 251 yards against the Terps. Those guys are decent quarterbacks, but certainly not on the level of Matt Ryan. Look for Ryan to close out Alumni Stadium with 300 yards passing on Saturday. This match up is the biggest mismatch between both teams, and should be the difference in this game.
Special Teams: Advantage Boston College
This is a matchup where I have to give the slightest edge to Boston College. It's amazing how even both of these teams are in certain aspects of their play all around. The punting game is a good example of this, where these two teams are dead even, as BC is ranked 5th in the ACC in net punting, and Maryland is ranked 6th.
Also, both BC and Maryland have equally as dangerous kickoff return men. For BC, superstar freshman Jeff Smith comes as the second-ranked kickoff returner in the ACC in terms of yards per return. Smith will be opposed by the 3rd ranked kickoff returner in the ACC, Maryland's Josh Wilson. Both of these return specialists have returned a kick for a TD this season as well.
The one area on special teams that I'd give Maryland a slight edge is in terms of place kickers. Dan Ennis has been steady for the Terps this season converting 15-of-19 field goals. He's only attempted 4 field goals 40 yards or above this season, and is 2-of-4 from that distance. For BC, kicker Steve Aponavicius is a perfect 5-for-5 on FG's less than 40 yards, but 0-for-2 on FG's 40+ yards. It would appear that Ennis has a slightly stronger leg.
Final Analysis: "The experts" like Boston College by a little over a touchdown. I'm a little weary of that amount, as I see the game a lot closer than that. Maryland's biggest score differential in ACC games this season is a 6 point victory over NC State. Their other 5 ACC contests were decided between five points or less.
It's mind boggling when you look at Maryland's 8-2 record, and then look at all of their team statistics, because they are in the bottom half of the ACC in almost every statistical category. The main thing to understand about the Terps is that they aren't going to come out and try to fool anyone with their game plan. Head coach and offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen is a very smart play caller and will stay within the limits of his talent. The Terps have a quarterback who doesn't make a lot of dumb mistakes, combined with pretty decent running backs, receivers, and offensive line. Look for Friedgen to test BC's cornerbacks a few times in this game, but for the most part he'll take what BC gives him underneath.
For BC, they have to stop the big play from happening. In their only 2 losses of the season, the common thread is that BC has been burned by a couple of big yardage plays in each game. The Terps love to feast on an occasional big play like that did last week against Miami for both of their TD's.
Ultimately, the Eagles need Matt Ryan to come through for them one more time. The biggest discrepancy in execution stems from BC's passing game versus Maryland's pass defense. It's up to Ryan and his receivers to take advantage of this.
In the end, I think Matt Ryan and BC's passing game is too much for Maryland. The Eagles win this one by less than a TD.