The big 2013 Military Bowl breakdown: Can Terps sustain in their ACC finale?

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Even matchup? Check. Two local teams creating a solid bowl atmosphere? Check. Potential for big plays on both sides of the ball? Check. The Military Bowl should be a fun one. (Dec. 27, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.)

This is an odd bowl season, with favorites led by interim coaches and mid-majors favored over BCS-conference foes.

In the Military Bowl, a Marshall team that went 0-1 against BCS foes and fell at Middle Tennessee, Ohio, and Rice is favored over a Maryland team that went 5-5 against BCS foes and beat the one that beat Marshall (Virginia Tech).

On paper, it makes sense -- Marshall's offense goes at mach speed and converts third downs, and its defense limits big-play opportunities. Meanwhile, Maryland's offense is without its top two receivers and can't maintain drives, and its defense suffers a lot of passing-downs glitches.

Still, we're comparing a team that destroyed bad teams to one that lost to pretty good ones. Hard to get a read for this one outside of the advanced stats. Luckily we have the stats! With those, we can compare teams' performances to a general baseline no matter who they played (and without asking "But who have they played??").

In Marshall, the stats see a team that was quite unlucky and came a lot closer to something greater than something less. Marshall recovered just 34 percent of all fumbles -- the Herd fumbled 15 times and, incredibly, lost 13 of them -- and recovered just two of nine fumbles in tight losses to Virginia Tech, Ohio, and MTSU. The Herd countered that by playing some football more dominant than anything Maryland can brag, even against lesser teams.

This Maryland team, meanwhile, is nothing if not resilient. The Terps proved their inexperience by playing terribly inconsistent football but they showed serious resilience in winning two of three tight games, closing games when they got the chance, and reaching bowl eligibility despite injuries. This isn't a good team yet, but it's good enough to take advantage of Marshall mistakes and sneak out of Annapolis with an improbable eighth win. And it's a team that will only get better in 2014. Barring injuries, of course.

How they got here

Marshall's season to date

The pieces began to fall into place for fourth-year Marshall head coach Doc Holliday this year. Easily one of the best recruiters in Conference USA, Holliday's Thundering Herd had gone just 17-20 in his first three seasons but leaped from 5-7 to 9-4 this year and took the C-USA East title in the process.

A 1-3 record in one-possession games put a bit of a ceiling on Marshall's season, but a dominant home upset of East Carolina on November 29 gave the Herd a spot in the conference title game ... where they suffered a dominant home upset at the hands of Rice.

This team is young enough that this could be a stepping stone to higher heights in 2014, but increasing your win total by 80 percent should never be seen as too disappointing.

Maryland's season to date

Randy Edsall has had what I will understatedly call an interesting three-year tenure in College Park. In his first year, he inherited a 9-4 team, ran a ton of players off, and went 2-10. In the next year, he suffered some famously awful injury luck at the quarterback position and finished the year with a true freshman linebacker taking snaps, but his Terps still improved to 4-8.

And in 2013, his team got off to a 4-0 start before both losing four of five and suffering a pair of season-ending injuries to star receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Still, the Terps rallied to win at Virginia Tech and NC State and somehow finish 7-5 despite the injuries and some general inconsistency.

In three years, he has seen his worst coaching job (2011) and perhaps his best (2012) ... and 2013 was almost half of each. Regardless, the Terps are back in a bowl after a two-year absence.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Marshall 9-4 NR 51 -3 29 75 95
Maryland 7-5 NR 65 74 68 12
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Marshall Offense 56 23 57 30 39 42 39
Maryland Defense 30 86 55 58 20 8 36
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Marshall Offense 70 49 3 40 44 79 44
Maryland Defense 42 38 10 61 46 37 23
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Maryland Offense 23 51 34 32 86 52 124
Marshall Defense 92 89 91 82 35 19 60
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Maryland Offense 52 91 96 123 65 31 97
Marshall Defense 73 13 109 68 100 56 96
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Marshall Special Teams 62 105 121 30 29 68
Maryland Special Teams 28 47 30 18 96 7

Marshall's biggest advantages

Maryland cannot maintain drives. As you see above, the Terps rank 124th in Methodical Drives; they're either scoring quickly or not at all. They need big plays to score, but despite some incredible youth in the secondary (five of 10 on the two-deep are freshmen or sophomores, including starting strong safety and true freshman Tiquan Lang), Marshall's strength is in preventing the big gains.

Actually, Marshall's strengths are twofold. Their solid conservatism in the back is matched by aggressiveness up front; the Herd have racked up 95 tackles for loss on the year, 21 of which have come from the lithe duo of tackle James Rouse (6'5, 258) and end Alex Bazzie (6'1, 228), both seniors. While the team's tackles for loss have been plumped up by both a 13th game and the fact that the defense faces a lot of plays (hazards of a high-paced offense), 95 is still quite a bit.

Marshall gets into your backfield at a decent rate, and as importantly, Maryland is a bit of a sieve up front, allowing defenders into the backfield a lot in the running game. Sophomore running backs Brandon Ross and Albert Reid are not without ability, but they're brought down behind the line of scrimmage a lot. And second-and-long is a good first step toward a three-and-out.

The Terps let you off the hook. The Maryland defense is sound in a lot of ways; the Terps are strong on first down prevent explosive drives even better than Marshall. But if a decent pass rush (led by outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield's nine sacks and end Andre Monroe's eight) doesn't get to you, a secondary even younger than Marshall's (six of eight on the two-deep are freshmen or sophomores) will sacrifice some second- or third-and-long conversions to avoid giving up a home run.

Allowing passing downs conversions is never a particularly good thing, but it can be doubly demoralizing against Marshall because of tempo. The Thundering Herd are one of seven teams to have executed at least 1,000 plays in 2013, and they're one of only three to have averaged at least 6.4 yards per play while doing so. Granted, a lot of that came against defenses worse than Maryland's, but if you let Marshall stay on the field for another set of downs, you could eventually wear down.

Maryland's biggest advantages:

Between disasters, the Terps should have a shot at some big plays of their own. Even without Diggs and Long, who combined for 65 catches and 1,015 yards (9.7 per target) in seven games, Maryland still has some big-play threats in the receiving corps. Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, and Amba Etta-Tawo combine to average 14.3 yards per catch, and not including sacks, quarterback C.J. Brown averages 6.7 yards per carry with a long of 64. With all of the injuries and negative plays, Maryland's still in the top 40 of both Rushing and Passing S&P+; they are quite capable of moving the ball against this aggressive Marshall defense.

If there is an advantage to be derived on special teams, Maryland will derive it. Terp return man William Likely is a great return man, Nathan Renfro is a solid punter, and Brad Craddock is 14-for-15 on field goals under 40 yards. Meanwhile, field goals and punting have both been problematic at times for the Herd. If the Terps can avoid disaster on offense, then they won't need to sustain many drives -- flipping the field in your favor can do quite a bit of that maintenance for you.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

The future's pretty bright for Maryland. Quarterback C.J. Brown will get a sixth year thanks to his countless injuries, the running backs are sophomores, the top three (healthy) receivers are sophomores or young (and Diggs and Long will be back next year), and the defense returns almost everybody. So yeah, Maryland will be expected to improve in 2014 regardless of what happens in the Military Bowl. A dominant game in Annapolis would only plump that up further.

It's basically the story for Marshall. The Herd will be among the C-USA favorites in 2014 regardless thanks to the return of quarterback Rakeem Cato, receiver Tommy Shuler, and almost the entire back seven of the defense. Whip the Terps, and maybe you get some preseason poll votes, but probably not.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Marshall 35, Maryland 31
Win Probability: Marshall 64%

The Military Bowl lucked into a pretty tightly matched, local game, and the atmosphere should be fun as a result. Both teams are probably going to be better in 2014 than they are now, but this should be a fun one. Because of Maryland's propensity for negative plays on offense, Marshall gets the edge, but the Herd aren't exactly infallible. If the Terps can win the field position advantage and avoid turning negative plays into disastrous plays, they become the favorites pretty quickly.

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