Maryland Rutgers Football

Maryland running back Anthony McFarland Jr. (5) runs by Rutgers linebacker Tyshon Fogg (8) for an 80-yard touchdown run during the third quarter last Saturday.

When Maryland’s offense stepped onto the field against Rutgers, the unit needed to show meaningful progress. Against an inferior opponent, the Terrapins had a prime opportunity to provide reassurance that the sluggish, error-prone performances in the previous two outings would not persist.

So when Dontay Demus Jr., the standout sophomore receiver, caught an 80-yard touchdown pass on Maryland’s first offensive play, it appeared to be the emphatic first step in creating the critical confidence-inspiring performance. In doing so, Demus reminded everyone of the type of bursts that fuel this offense: explosive plays, in the air and on the ground, that quickly generate chunks of yards, and frequently touchdowns.

But the next 12 plays, spanning four drives that ended in punts, also showed a key characteristic of Maryland’s offense. The Terps have been as inefficient as they are explosive, a troubling throwback to last season. Through those 12 plays that followed the dynamic start, Rutgers sacked Josh Jackson twice and Maryland lost three yards.

The solution, Locksley said as his team prepares for its Saturday matchup at Purdue, is to be more effective on first down. Especially in the two losses, and even at times during the successful offensive showings, Maryland has struggled to do so, which leads to more difficult second-down calls and ultimately third-and-long attempts. During those sluggish early drives against Rutgers, Maryland needed to gain at least five yards on every third down. The offense failed each time.

“Our first-down efficiency needs to get back to where it was earlier in the year and we can help that some with how we call it,” Locksley said. “But the execution up front, blocking the perimeter, all those little things really show up on first down.”

The Terps gained a median of three yards on first downs in all three of their wins, whereas the typical first-down outcome was just 1 yard in the Temple loss and no gain in Penn State’s rout. The Terps have lost or gained no yardage on 38 percent of all plays they’ve run in 2019, a slightly worse mark than last season’s 34 percent.

But the Terps have survived — and dominated three of their five opponents — by leaning on their abundance of athletes who take turns knocking off huge plays.

Running back Anthony McFarland Jr., the team’s most prolific big-play creator, frequently explodes down the sideline after eluding defenders. Despite a minor ankle injury, he scored on an 80-yard run against Rutgers.

McFarland has “probably one of the more unique combinations of speed and quickness that I have seen in a long time with the football in his hands,” offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said before the season began.

It’s not simply McFarland’s speed that makes him elusive. Montgomery credited the way McFarland is so efficient in the way he cuts. He tucks the ball quicker than most, Montgomery said, so if McFarland catches the ball on the perimeter, he “has a chance to eye up linebackers at six yards away, versus three to four yards away, which gives him a much better chance to make them miss.”

Fellow running back Javon Leake becomes a threat in space thanks to his speed. He returned a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown against Rutgers, after he dropped the ball in the end zone and then ran toward the opposite side of the field. On top of his special teams bursts, Leake has run for a gain of at least 30 yards three times this season.

Once Leake breaks through the last few defenders, he said his only thought is, “Just don’t get caught.” He knows he has the necessary speed, so “that would be the worst.”

Maryland’s No. 3 running back, Tayon Fleet-Davis, offers ability of a similar level. All of the running backs have become more involved in the pass game under Locksley, but Fleet-Davis became the back who showed off this skill set against Rutgers. On consecutive plays, he caught a pass for a 50-yard gain and then scored on a 23-yard reception.

“That was my first time” catching a long pass like that, Fleet-Davis said this week. “It was actually fun, just getting that receiver feeling and being that open in the open field. I got excited.”

Particularly in the first two games with quarterback Josh Jackson playing well, Maryland grabbed massive gains through the air as well. Demus, along with fellow receivers DJ Turner, Darryl Jones and Brian Cobbs, has made contributions to this year’s offensive machine that generates explosive plays at a high rate.

But the pass game will miss a few important pieces against Purdue: Turner, who has also returned a kickoff for a touchdown this year, is still suspended as a result of his Sept. 20 charges for driving while under the influence. Backup quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome will replace Jackson (high ankle sprain).

In all of Maryland’s wins, the offense has combined for at least six plays of at least 20 yards. In the loss against Temple, the Terps had three such plays. Against Penn State, the 59-0 blowout, they didn’t generate any.

Whenever a player such as McFarland gains massive yardage at once, it helps mask the offense’s occasional inefficiencies. A few quick scores make the previous futile drives seem irrelevant.

“Everybody can do everything,” Leake said of the running backs. “Fleet can catch. Ant is fast. I’m fast. We all can do all those things and show our versatility. I just feel like all three of us are a complete package.”

Just consider the Rutgers win: Immediately after those four early drives generated no promising offensive moments, Maryland scored on three straight plays. First came the three-play drive that included Fleet-Davis’s back-to-back long receptions. The next offensive snap became a 42-yard touchdown run from Leake. Then an interception and long return from Ayinde Eley gave McFarland the chance to punch in the score from the 2-yard line.

The slow start no longer mattered because the Terps suddenly led by two scores. Few will look back at that game and feel concerned about the prolonged stretch when Maryland couldn’t move the ball. Because with explosive plays as their fuel, the Terps won. And they did so easily.

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