Rivalries bring out the best in teams, and I expect that to be the case Saturday at Byrd Stadium. Virginia is a victory away from qualifying for a bowl game in Coach Mike London’s second season, which would be a sizable accomplishment. Maryland needs four straight wins to qualify for a bowl game — a long shot — but the Terrapins have plenty of motivation because this is the last home game for 15 seniors. Plus, they made it no secret this week that they hate all things U-Va. related. So don’t expect either team to be flat.
But at this point in the season, after that hapless performance last week against Boston College, just how good is Maryland when it plays its best game? By shuffling the linebackers, can Maryland dramatically improve its rushing defense, which ranks 118th nationally? Can Maryland’s undersize defensive line hold up against the Cavaliers’ rather robust line, especially without defensive end David Mackall, who was indefinitely suspended by Coach Randy Edsall on Wednesday night?
Virginia is averaging 186.4 rushing yards per game, the second-highest amount by the Cavaliers in the past 12 seasons. The Cavaliers rushed for a season-high 274 yards in a win over then-No. 12 Georgia Tech on Oct. 15. As for Maryland, it knew exactly what Boston College would attempt to do last week in the slop — run! — yet attempts to stop it proved futile. I still have visions of that dude named Finch, who was not exactly a household name like Montel Harris, running for 243 yards, the highest single-game total in the ACC this season. Maryland made Finch look like Temple’s Bernard Pierce a few weeks after it made Pierce look like Adrian Peterson. What’s more, Maryland has had sluggish starts to games this season. Virginia is outscoring opponents 47-7 in the first quarter this season.
But Maryland (2-6) can win. Absolutely it can win. Virginia (5-3) is a physical team with a strong ground game and potent special teams units. The Cavaliers are the better football team. But, in my view, this game is a toss-up because the Cavaliers are nothing if not erratic. They have turned into a poor man’s Clemson, the old Clemson team that baffled observers week to week. The Cavaliers knocked off Georgia Tech only to go belly up the next week against North Carolina State. The Cavaliers toppled Miami on Oct. 27; now let’s see what they can do as a follow-up. Remember, this is the same Virginia team that had to go to overtime to beat Idaho, which is 1-7. So while the Cavs are in the midst of a resurgent season, as Dennis Green may caution, let’s not crown ’em just yet. Just how much do you trust that team from Charlottesville? Remember, Virginia has lost 13 consecutive games in November. Its last victory in November was Nov. 10, 2007.
I’ve got to make a prediction on this one. In the end, I reflect back to last week. You knew how bad Boston College was. I knew how bad Boston College was. And there I was, sitting in a press box looking out at a practically empty stadium and watching Maryland fall further and further behind the Eagles. I’ve never experienced such a dour ambience for a game between two BCS teams. At kickoff, I counted 78 fans in the upper deck that faced me. There were fewer than that by game’s end. The Terrapins could well win this game with a few breaks or turnovers. But after last week’s debacle, I’d be foolish to predict it.
Virginia 31, Maryland 27