By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
BOISE, Idaho, Dec. 29 -- When Dean Muhtadi sat at his computer on Dec. 5, the Maryland defensive lineman received this two-word instant message from teammate Tommy Galt: "Cosh quit." Two days following the unexpected departure of defensive coordinator Chris Cosh to Kansas State, Maryland then accepted an invitation to play in the Humanitarian Bowl against Nevada.
Those two events crystallized Maryland's challenge Tuesday at Bronco Stadium, where it will try to contain a prolific, innovative offense with an interim defensive coordinator. Muhtadi knows coaches leave schools all the time, but the senior acknowledged, "It was probably one of the worst times for a coach to leave."
For the most part, Maryland has bigger and stronger athletes than Nevada. And the Terrapins' offense might be able to pick apart a Nevada defense that ranks last in division I-A in pass defense. But it won't matter if the Wolf Pack controls the ball and keeps Maryland's defense on the field for the majority of the game.
"They have a heck of an offense," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I hate when I am in there watching the other team and admiring what they do. That's not a good feeling."
Throughout the month, Friedgen has lamented the fact that there has been little continuity in the practice schedule because of final exams, the holidays and travel logistics. The Terrapins engaged in just two true practices in the week before Tuesday's game, which concerns Friedgen particularly when facing an unfamiliar offense.
Nevada Coach Chris Ault's pistol offense, which he installed prior to the 2005 season, has made the Wolf Pack attack one of the most formidable in the nation. Nevada ranks second nationally in rushing, averaging 291.4 yards per game, fifth in total offense and 13th in scoring offense.
In Ault's offense, the quarterback lines up in shotgun formation about four yards behind the center. A running back positions himself behind the quarterback and remains concealed from the defense, which gives the back a split-second advantage to make a move.
"You can't necessarily predict where the ball is going to be run," said Maryland interim defensive coordinator Al Seamonson, who had been the team's outside linebackers coach and special teams assistant. "There is no real tendency to say it is going to be to the left or the right."
The Wolf Pack set a school record for rushing yards (3,497) this season. Running back Vai Taua and quarterback Colin Kaepernick each surpassed 1,000 yards rushing, marking the first time in school history that Nevada had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.
The 6-foot-6 Kaepernick, the Western Athletic Conference offensive player of the year, ran for 1,115 yards and 16 touchdowns. And only one player (California s Jahvid Best) has a higher yards per carry average than Kaepernick.
"Stats don't lie," Maryland defensive lineman Jeremy Navarre said. "They run the ball very well. They are one of the better offenses in the country."
Muhtadi said the Terrapins have their "work cut out for them. Just stopping the run, that has been our focus."
Seamonson said Nevada disguises its running plays a little like Navy, but the Wolf Pack throws more than the Midshipmen. Kaepernick became just the fifth quarterback in division I-A history to rush for 1,000 yards and throw for 2,000 yards in the same season. The sophomore has thrown 19 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.
Facing five opponents whose passing defenses ranked 91st or worse nationally, however, might have inflated Nevada's passing numbers. Regardless, Seamonson believes when an offense amasses more than 500 total yards per game "that represents a pretty balanced attack."
Seamonson, in his eighth season at Maryland, has treated this month as an audition for the coordinator position. He said he is interested in the job, but he has kept the focus squarely on today's game, sometimes leaving the Gossett Team House at midnight after a long night studying the Wolf Pack.
Over the past month, graduate assistant Henry Baker has helped Seamonson with the inside linebackers, who had been under Cosh's purview.
The biggest difference players have seen in practice has concerned temperament. While Cosh was demonstrative, Seamonson is more mild-mannered and calm.
"Al is more than capable of doing the job," Navarre said.
Players know the game's outcome likely will be determined by the play of a defense that has been inconsistent most of the season. On Sept. 27, the Terrapins slowed Clemson's rushing attack in the second half, spurring a winning rally. But on Nov. 6, it allowed a redshirt freshman to rush for a school-record 253 yards in a loss at Virginia Tech.
Now comes perhaps an even greater challenge: facing a potent offense that uses an unorthodox formation, and doing it with an interim coordinator.
"It's not going to be my calls," Seamonson said. "It will be the execution of the calls."