COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The last time West Virginia played a road game, the Mountaineers suffered through one of their worst performances in Neal Brown’s two seasons, falling to Iowa State 42-6.
It capped a winless 2020 season on the road for West Virginia, which looks to exorcise those demons when the 2021 campaign kicks off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday against Maryland at Capital One Field.
The first meeting between the Mountaineers and Terrapins since 2015 will be shown on ESPN and provide Brown an opportunity to build early season confidence within the locker room after last year’s struggles away from home.
“I’m glad we’re on the road to start off. I really am,” Brown said. “We had some struggles there last year. We’re looking to play much improved than we did a year ago on the road.”
Maryland, which finished 2-3 last season, will feature Taulia Tagovailoa at quarterback. A junior, Tagovailoa is the younger brother of former Alabama star and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. He passed for 1,011 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2020.
“Definitely need to make sure with Taulia that we continue to have him make good decisions,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “He has a very comfortable level with the receivers now after being here a year-and-a-half with these guys and this summer to do things with player-run practices and develop the chemistry. We’ll see this Saturday if all the work and things he’s done come to fruition and allow him to go out and play really well for us.”
Tagovailoa has dangerous weapons at his disposal, including Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett. In the abbreviated five-game season, that duo combined for 41 receptions, 617 yards and six touchdowns.
“Receiver wise, maybe as talented as anybody we’re going to play this year,” Brown said. “They have probably four to six quality guys at receiver. It starts with Demus and Jarrett and those guys are NFL players.”
Tayon Fleet-Davis will be a featured tailback. He played an expanded role in 2018 and 2019, but saw action in only one game last season due to disciplinary reasons.
The Terrapins will try to move the ball against a unit that returns several key contributors from what was the top passing defense in college football last season.
Defensive linemen Dante Stills and Akheem Mesidor anchor the front, while Josh Chander-Semedo is the most experienced linebacker.
The secondary lost two standouts from last season to the transfer portal in Tykee Smith and Dreshun Miller, but returns a wealth of experience in safeties Alonzo Addae and Sean Mahone, along with cornerback Nicktroy Fortune. Senior safety Scottie Young could be a big factor after transferring from Arizona and sitting out last season until the Liberty Bowl win over Army.
“They were one of the top-ranked defenses in the country and really well coached,” Locksley said. “They do a great job of creating turnovers and had the number one pass defense in the country. Really high up in scoring defense, so they’ll present a pretty good challenge on that side of the ball.”
For WVU, senior quarterback Jarret Doege hopes to display more mobility and accuracy in what will mark his third year seeing action for the Mountaineers and second straight as the season-opening starter.
Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Winston Wright, Sam James and Sean Ryan headline a group of wide receivers that has stressed the importance of helping Doege by preventing dropped passes.
Tailback Leddie Brown, a returning 1,000-yard rusher, figures to be the focal point running behind an offensive line that’s moved Zach Frazier from guard to center and added guard Doug Nester, a Virginia Tech transfer.
A year ago, WVU managed only 59 points in four road contests.
Now it’ll face a Maryland team with new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators as Locksley, like Brown, enters his third season as head coach.
“If you don’t have tendencies and a personality and a belief system in what you do well, then you probably don’t do much well,” WVU offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said. “Neal and I both believe you have to go in and do what you do to a lot of degree, because if you don’t, your guys fail to build confidence on what we have building blocks on. Through our installs from spring to summer to now, you hope your guys have a strong sense of confidence in the plays we’ve chosen to build our offense around.”
Casey Legg will handle field goals, while Evan Staley kicks off and Tyler Sumpter punts for the Mountaineers.
West Virginia is one of four teams playing 11 Power 5 Conference opponents, though a victory against Maryland will be a big step toward a strong start.
Long Island of the FCS, which lost to Florida Atlantic 48-10 in Thursday’s opener, comes to Morgantown next week. The Mountaineers then welcome Virginia Tech before beginning Big 12 Conference play at Oklahoma.
“We need to get a bad taste out of our mouth,” Brown said. “We didn’t go on the road and perform as well. That hasn’t been the case historically. We played our best football on the road in 2019, winning at Kansas State and TUC. Historically, for our staff, we’ve played really on the road. I don’t think it’s an issue, but we still have to go out and win on the road, which we didn’t a year ago.”