COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland running game, which needs a boost after gaining only 16 yards in the season opener, might soon get a surprising jolt.
Tailback Bruce Perry, the Offensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2001, might return from a torn groin muscle sooner than anticipated. Terps coach Ralph Friedgen said yesterday that Perry, originally not expected to be available for another two to six weeks, is progressing well.
Perry has been rehabilitating at a clinic in Silver Spring, and he's eager to play against Florida State on Sept. 14 at Byrd Stadium.
"He would like to be back next week, but I don't know if that's a possibility or not," Friedgen said. "He's doing well. He's jogging right now and he's feeling no pain. I'm going to be very selective."
Last season, the junior from Philadelphia totaled 12 touchdowns, running for 1,242 yards and making 40 receptions for 359 yards. However, he ended the year with an abdominal injury that kept him out of spring practices and left him in only slightly better shape for fall camp.
The initial reaction to Perry's absence was blase. Another back would emerge - Jason Crawford or Mario Merrills - just as Perry did when career rushing leader Lamont Jordan's departed after the 2000 season.
Then came Saturday night, when the Terps gained only three first downs on the ground in a 22-0 loss to Notre Dame at Giants Stadium.
"He plays my position, but we need him back," said Crawford, who started against the Irish and probably will start Saturday against visiting Akron. "When he comes back, I'll still get the ball, but we need him back."
Said Friedgen: "For one, [Perry] has experience, he's a pass threat and, three, he's also a great football player."
The run went awry for Maryland for various reasons on Saturday night. Friedgen blames himself for impatience, using a no-huddle scheme midway through the third quarter. Even before halftime, with the Terps facing a manageable 9-0 deficit, the team had thrown the ball on 60 percent of its plays.
"I don't know if they [coaches) lost confidence in us or what," said Crawford, who joined Merrills in asking for more carries during halftime Saturday night and also this week. "We told them, 'Look, we don't have D-I scholarships for no reason.' "
Much of the credit had to go to the Notre Dame defense, which allowed Crawford to gain a respectable 17 yards on his first four carries, but then started stacking players near the line of scrimmage.
Dared to pass and run the option, Maryland had a tough time doing either, thus failing to free the rushing game.
"They continued to put extra players in the box and force us into an option-passing game," said running backs coach Mike Locksley.
Locksley, in his sixth year working with the team's running backs, said the youth of Crawford and Merrills was a factor. They were sharing the job of tailback, but they were partly auditioning to have the job all to themselves.
In the manner of a boxer eschewing body blows for haymakers, the Terps' backs often searched for big gains to distinguish themselves instead of simply working for short yardage.
"They were both pushing a little bit," Locksley said. "They both knew that they would play, but they knew that, 'If I get hot, I'm going to be the guy.' "
This week, Crawford and Merrills are concentrating on moving straight ahead, not laterally, when they get the ball.
"Coach Locksley has ingrained that in our minds the whole time," Merrills said. "Think north and south, make the cut, but don't dance."
Akron gave up 379 yards on the ground during a 57-21 loss to Iowa last week, perhaps in part because only one of its eight most-used defensive linemen weighs more than 262 pounds.
That deficiency is one that Friedgen hopes to exploit this weekend, thus helping Merrills and Crawford to prove themselves.
"Even though the production [of the backs] wasn't what I'd like, I'd take the blame for that," he said. "They just didn't have a lot of opportunities to run. We'll change that."
Next for Terps
Opponent: Akron (0-1)
Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park
When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast pay-per-view/ WIYY (97.9 FM)
Line: Maryland by 22