Terps running game tries to rebound
Health of offensive line, suspension of Harrison have affected productivity
COLLEGE PARK — What began as a running back competition and then a running-by-committee approach in coach DJ Durkin’s first season at Maryland has become — because of injury, performance and one high-profile recent off-field incident — a battle of attrition.
After starting with five players jockeying for position on the depth chart, then adding a sixth when senior Wes Brown returned from a four-game suspension against Penn State in early October, the Terps are down to what is basically a three- or four-man rotation.
Going into today’s final road game of the season at No. 18 Nebraska (8-2, 5-2), Maryland (5-5, 2-5) will try to rebound from its lowest production offensively both overall and, more glaringly, in its running game during a 62-3 loss at home to then-No. 5 Ohio State.
In the aftermath of freshman Lorenzo Harrison’s indefinite suspension after being charged Wednesday in a BB gun incident on campus, sophomore Ty Johnson is now the team’s No. 1 running back. His 656 yards put him only 23 yards ahead of Harrison, but 498 ahead of senior Kenneth Goins Jr. (Gilman).
“We missed [Harrison] and everything, but it just provides opportunity for everybody else back there,” Goins said this week. “We all were playing a lot earlier in the season and everybody in the backfield is pretty talented, so whoever gets in the game makes some type of impact.”
Statistically, freshman Jake Funk (124 yards on 26 carries) ranks third among the available running backs in yardage this year and Brown (13 yards on 22 attempts) is a distant fourth. After returning from the long suspension, Brown has yet to find the same success he had his first three seasons. In addition, senior Trey Edmunds, who carried the ball 26 times for 158 yards and a touchdown, has not played since he broke his foot in October.
While crediting the Buckeyes for the way they held the Terps to 176 yards of total After returning from a long suspension in October, senior Wes Brown (5) has yet to find the same success he had his first three seasons at Maryland. offense and just 43 yards on 40 rushing attempts, Johnson said, “Execution-wise, we could have been a little better on everyone’s part as a unit. But we can’t dwell on that. You’ve got to get ready for the next game.”
Offensive coordinator Walt Bell said that last week’s lack of production in the running game was not just a result of Harrison’s absence. Bell said the lack of productivity — aside from playing the Big Ten’s second-stingiest rushing defense — also had to do with the collective health of the offensive line.
Maryland played without guard Mike Minter, and tackle Michael Dunn, who missed the Michigan game with an injury, and center Brendan Moore were a “little beat up,” Bell said. Fifth-year senior quarterback Perry Hills was forced out in the first half for the second straight week and fourth time this season.
“He’s the guy who’s kind of been our leader, so when he comes out, you kind of see the air come out of the football team. We’ve got to fix that as well,” Bell said Wednesday.
But Bell couldn’t completely overlook the loss of Harrison.
“It’s more than just him, but yeah, when you’ve got a dynamic piece like that, where you don’t have to be perfect all the time,” Bell said. “He can make a guy miss. He can extend plays and he can extend drives, especially in those third-and-4 and 5s, and get to the [first-down] stick. That’s what makes him special and that’s what you miss more than anything else.”
Durkin believes Brown is ready for an expanded role the last two weeks of the season.
“He certainly prepared and practiced well, and he’s obviously an older, experienced guy, he’s been through it,” Durkin said Thursday. “He’s mentally in the right place and physically in the right place.”
Johnson credits Brown for much of the success he has had this season.
“He definitely laid down the blueprints for me. He’s the one who showed me how to watch film and as a resource on the field when we run a play and maybe it’s not so successful, he’ll be like, ‘Did you see what happened?’ He sees a lot of things and he’s been here for a long time. Even when we do have a good play, I don’t even talk to the coach first, I talk to him,” he said.
How Durkin rotates his running backs in Lincoln could have a lot to do with the success Johnson has in finding holes against a rushing defense that has allowed just one running back, Oregon’s Kani Benoit, to get at least 100 yards, and has given up over 150 yards in the Big Ten to only Ohio State and Wisconsin.
After nursing a hamstring injury for several weeks, Johnson said he is ready to carry the load if needed.
“I feel pretty fresh,” he said Wednesday. “Coach Durkin and the rest of the staff, they do a great job of lightening up practice with certain reps and drills we do at practice so by the time gameday comes around, we’re feeling pretty good.”
Durkin doesn’t think he has to make any significant changes to the team’s game plan or offensive identity despite the loss of Harrison and the question of whether Hills is ready to play.
“Our offense is set up to be effective both running or throwing, depending on what’s there and what the defense is giving us,” Durkin said. “We’ve been effective at both during different times in the season. It’s just a matter of us executing and getting back to doing what we do well no matter who’s at quarterback or running back or whatever else. Whoever’s in has to step up and play.”
Montgomery said the Mids’ style causes opposing offensive coordinators to change their game plans.
“There will be some strategy that is different from a normal game. You need to have really, really good first-down calls on offense,” he said. “I think we have to be very efficient when we have the ball as well. We definitely have to score by any means necessary. When you don’t score against Navy, you definitely have to end every possession with a kick.”
Montgomery previously served as an assistant at Duke and faced Army West Point, Navy and Georgia Tech during his tenure. He believes the Mids are running the triple option at a higher level than any other program.
“I think they kind of stand alone. They have the purest form of what they do. They know all your adjustments to it and they have the answers,” Montgomery said. “The ball carriers make it really tough for you to get them on the ground. What I think they have that a lot of other teams don’t have is true toughness with running that offense.”
East Carolina has alternated quarterbacks with Minnesota transfer Phillip Nelson the starter and Gardner Minshew coming off the bench in relief. They have combined to throw for 3,547 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Isaiah “Zay” Jones is the top target with 139 receptions for 1,473 yards and six scores. Jones can set the FBS record for career catches with eight today.
James Summers, a former quarterback, is the leading rusher with 683 yards. The wide receiver will often line up in the Wildcat formation and take direct snaps.