As Maryland prepared for No. 8 West Virginia, it might have comforted Terps fans — but only a little — that there have been other occasions in recent seasons in which the team entered games as a multi-touchdown underdog and came away with its dignity intact, if not with a win.
The Terps (2-1, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) headed to Morgantown to face a Mountaineers team (2-0, 0-0 Big 12 Conference) favored by almost four touchdowns Saturday. West Virginia is averaging a gaudy 55.5 points and 612 yards per game, third in the nation.
"To be the best, you have to play the best," Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. "I think it's exciting they're on the schedule and we get an opportunity to play them."
It won't be the first time a defense coached by Stewart has opposed West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen's "Air Raid" offense. As the University of Houston's defensive coordinator, Stewart coached in practice against the offense that Holgorsen — formerly Houston's offensive coordinator — had left behind.
"Dana Holgorsen in 2009 had the No. 1 offense at the University of Houston, and then he went to Oklahoma State," Stewart said. "The way the defense is set up with the no-huddle and the wristbands that we use, it came from playing against that offense in practice. I don't anticipate the communication being a problem [Saturday]," he said.
Maryland's defensive players regularly wear wristbands partly so they don't have to worry about hearing defensive signals in noisy environments such as West Virginia's Milan-Puskar Stadium.
The wristbands give the players cues for lining up against different offensive sets.
"You used to see [a wristband] on the offense more so than the defense," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "With the no-huddle offenses and the fast-paced offenses, it's a lot easier to just give a signal and for them to look at their wristband to know what we're playing as opposed to sending it to one guy and he's shouting it out," Edsall said.
In their most recent game in Morgantown two years ago, the Terps appeared flustered by the noise from an announced crowd of 60,122. On their first offensive series, they committed three delay-of-game penalties and one false start. Their early ineptitude only encouraged the crowd to yell louder.
The West Virginia fans are "a very hostile group," Maryland tight end Matt Furstenburg said. "You kind of put that away and tune out what they're saying."
Maryland can draw upon some recent history of remaining competitive against heavily favored teams.
Last season, the Terps traveled to Atlanta to play an undefeated Georgia Tech team leading the nation in rushing offense and averaging 51.6 points per game. Maryland turned in perhaps its best defensive effort of the season before losing, 21-16.
Maryland also was competitive against then-No. 18 West Virginia last season in a 37-31 defeat.
"We know that we came close and came up a little bit short," Edsall said of last season's game. "But that's something that we need to draw on. We need to minimize the mistakes."
If there was consolation for the Terps in last season's West Virginia game, it came from scoring 21 unanswered points and knowing that — after trailing 34-10 — they pulled to within 35 yards of a potential winning score before then-quarterback Danny O'Brien threw his third interception at the end.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, who is back this season, threw for 388 yards. Wide receiver Tavon Austin (Dunbar) had 11 catches for 122 yards, burning Maryland for the second straight year.
The Mountaineers often found creative ways — a behind-the-line touch pass in one instance — to get the ball to Austin. Maryland is looking for more of the same Saturday.
"What we want to do is keep the ball in front of us, tackle the catch and eliminate the big play," Stewart said. "If we can get off on third down, I think we'll have the opportunity to be close."
Maryland (2-1, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. West Virginia (2-0, 0-0 Big 12)
When: Saturday, noon
Site: Milan-Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va.
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM
Series: West Virginia leads 25-21-2
Last meeting: West Virginia beat Maryland, 37-31, on Sept. 17, 2011, at Byrd Stadium.
Maryland offense vs. West Virginia defense: The Mountaineers have has won the past six meetings. The Terps and true freshman quarterback Perry Hills will try to control some clock to keep the ball away from West Virginia's potent offense. Maryland coach Randy Edsall said he might use as many as four running backs — Justus Pickett, Brandon Ross, Wes Brown and Albert Reid. It will be the first time Hills has played against a "50 defense" with its five linemen. The Mountaineers' defense is led by linebacker Isaiah Bruce, who leads the Big 12 Conference in tackles. He had 16 tackles against Marshall in the season opener and returned a fumble for a touchdown.
Maryland defense vs. West Virginia offense: Led by quarterback Geno Smith, the Mountaineers rank third in the nation in total offense (612 yards per game). Smith is averaging 33 completions per game. Receiver Stedman Bailey leads the nation in receptions per game (11), and receiver Tavon Austin is 22nd in the nation in all-purpose yards (154 per game). Maryland's defense has been solid — it's second in the ACC — but hasn't faced a test like this. Maryland hopes linebacker Kenny Tate can return from a knee injury that sidelined him for the first three games.