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West Virginia Football: 10 Key Storylines to Watch for in the Maryland Game

Danny FlynnSenior Analyst IOctober 9, 2016

West Virginia Football: 10 Key Storylines to Watch for in the Maryland Game

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    After totaling 111 points and 1,224 yards of offense in their first two games, the West Virginia Mountaineers will now look to continue their impressive offensive onslaught when they host Maryland on Saturday afternoon. 

    The Terrapins will be West Virginia's first BCS opponent and the toughest team it's faced so far this season. However, the Mountaineers clearly have the talent advantage to go along with the home-field advantage for this game. 

    QB Geno Smith and his dangerous receiver duo of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey seem like they're just starting to heat up. If those three continue to stay hot, it could be a very long day for the Maryland defense. 

    Here's a look at some of the key storylines to watch for in Saturday's showdown. 

How Will Geno Smith Handle the Heisman Hype?

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    Now that USC quarterback Matt Barkley, the consensus preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, has been knocked out, the media has been forced to find a new Heisman favorite to hype up.

    Since last Saturday, there have been a whole lot of new additions to the Geno Smith bandwagon. 

    Smith definitely deserves the attention and publicity, especially when you look at just how consistent and productive he's been in West Virginia's first two games. 

    The 6'3'', 220-pound senior currently has an 88 percent completion percentage, which is the highest in the country, and he's thrown for 734 yards and nine touchdowns. 

    Still, getting the Heisman-favorite label this early in the season has usually proved to be more of a hindrance than a help for many players in years past. 

    It will be interesting to see how the usually level-headed Smith handles his newfound Heisman hype this weekend. 

Can the Offensive Line Shut Down Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis?

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    Maryland's defense finished dead last in the ACC in both total defense and scoring defense last year. However, there were a few bright spots and impressive individual performances. 

    Two of the players that stood out were linemen Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis, who combined for 125 tackles and 4.5 sacks. 

    This year, the two seniors have already racked up 2.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. 

    The West Virginia offensive line has played great so far this year, only allowing one sack in 87 total pass attempts.

    However, the Mountaineers front five will now have by far their toughest test of the season against Vellano and Francis. 

Who Will Get More Carries, Shawne Alston or Andrew Buie?

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    Since last year's leading rusher Dustin Garrison is still nursing a knee injury, Shawne Alston has had the chance to prove that he can be a featured back for the West Virginia offense this season. 

    Alston has certainly made the most of the opportunity, rushing for 185 yards on just 30 carries and scoring three touchdowns in just two games. 

    The big, sturdy senior isn't the only back that the Mountaineers can rely on, though. 

    Sophomore Andrew Buie has also looked impressive when he's had the ball in his hands, averaging 8.5 yards on 13 carries, catching nine passes for 121 yards and scoring a touchdown. 

    So far, Alston has been the team's bell-cow back. But given the way Buie's looked recently, we may start to see their number of carries begin to even out in the weeks to come. 

Can the Mountaineers Contain Stefon Diggs?

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    There's no doubt about who Maryland's most explosive offensive playmaker is.

    Freshman wide receiver Stefon Diggs is a true big-play threat who possesses game-changing speed and dangerous playmaking ability.

    Diggs arrived at Maryland as one of the top-rated prospects of the 2012 recruiting class, and so far, he's lived up to expectations. 

    The 6'1'', 185-pound speedster has caught nine passes for 146 yards and a touchdown and also totaled 175 yards on kickoff and punt returns. 

    If West Virginia's secondary isn't careful, Diggs could really do some major damage to the Mountaineers defense. 

Will Perry Hills Be Rattled by a Loud Road Environment?

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    Maryland quarterback Perry Hills will make just his second career start away from home this weekend at Mountaineer Field. 

    Hills won his first road game against Temple in front of about 20,000 fans at Lincoln Financial Field.

    But it's going to be a totally different environment in Morgantown in front of 60,000 screaming West Virginia fans. 

    It will be interesting to see if the young freshman quarterback can keep his composure and not get rattled. 

Will the Defense Display Better Tackling Ability?

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    West Virginia hasn't shown many flaws in its first two games, but one noticeable deficiency has been the defense's lackluster tackling ability. 

    There have been too many instances when Mountaineer defenders were either out of position to make an open-field tackle and whiffed, or failed to bring a ball-carrier down on first contact. 

    Since the defense has been breaking in a few new starters at key positions this season, the struggles are understandable. However, it's a flaw that will have to get corrected soon if the team hopes to slow down some of the Big 12's best offenses. 

Can the Defensive Line Get to the Quarterback?

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    West Virginia's defensive line has produced just 1.5 sacks in the first two games, even though the defense has faced 79 total pass attempts. 

    The Mountaineers' three-man front, led by junior defensive end Will Clarke, has to do a better job of applying consistent pressure on the quarterback and coming up with drive-shattering sacks. 

    The team can no longer rely on talented pass-rushers such as Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, who compiled 14 total sacks last year. 

    That means that Clarke and the rest of West Virginia's defensive line rotation have to step up and find a way to get to the quarterback. 

Will Tyler Bitancurt Finally Attempt a Field Goal?

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    Since West Virginia's offense has had such an easy time reaching the end zone so far this season, kicker Tyler Bitancurt hasn't yet been asked to attempt a field goal.

    Obviously, you'd much rather see touchdowns than field goals, but it would be nice to get Bitancurt some practice kicking in live game action this season before Big 12 play starts. 

    Maryland's defense has only given up three touchdowns in the red zone this season, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Bitancurt get called on to knock a few field goals through on Saturday.

Will Corey Smith Continue to Struggle?

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    Another special teams player who hasn't gotten much work this season is punter Corey Smith. 

    It's never bad when the punter is sitting on the sideline for the whole game, but what is bad is when that punter can't produce when called upon. 

    Smith has only attempted three punts this season. One of those punts was blocked, and the other one was a 24-yard shank. 

    That's certainly not what you want to see from an experienced senior punter. Hopefully, if Smith is called on to punt against Maryland, he'll show that those two miscues were just flukes. 

Can Maryland Establish a Consistent Ground Game?

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    Maryland has four running backs—Wes Brown, Justus Pickett, Albert Reid and Brandon Ross—that it will unleash on West Virginia's defense. 

    While none of the four may be stars, they're all capable backs who complement each other well. 

    Brown, who is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, looks like he might be the best of the bunch. The 6'1'', 220-pound freshman could certainly create some problems for West Virginia's defensive front seven. 

    There's no doubt that the Terrapins would love to establish a ground attack, eat up the clock and keep the Mountaineers' explosive offense on the sideline. 

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