Terrapins running backs complained of a lack of opportunity during the season-opening 22-0 loss to Notre Dame, in which they got 16 yards on 21 carries. But last night, they got all the carries they could ask for, running the ball 50 times for 209 yards.
"We weren't running the ball enough, right?" Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen asked rhetorically after the game. "Now we're probably not passing enough."
Tailback Mario Merrills (Wilde Lake) led with 79 yards on 17 carries as Maryland (1-1) broke into the win column while tuning up for its toughest game of the season, next week's Atlantic Coast Conference opener against No. 5 Florida State.
The Zips (0-2) actually had only 8 fewer yards, 319 to Maryland's 327, but five different Terps scored while taking a four-touchdown halftime lead. In the process, they regained some of the confidence lost in the opener.
"If we didn't win this game, then we're looking at Florida State and a very tough road ahead," Friedgen said. "I thought our kids handled it well. They came out and did what they had to do."
The offense acted as if the forward pass were illegal, choosing to run on its first 11 plays against an Akron team that had given up more than 8.3 yards per carry the week before in a 57-21 loss to Iowa. Maryland held an obvious advantage, with 300-pounders across its offensive line while the mean weight across the Zips' front four was 261 pounds.
So even after the Terps compiled a 0.8-yard average against Notre Dame, they felt good about their ability to run yesterday. "I can't wait," tailback Jason Crawford said in midweek, "I don't know what y'all seen, but they look terrible."
Not content to take his word for it, an announced crowd of 48,057 showed up to see for themselves.
Chris Downs, announced as the starter on Thursday afternoon after what Friedgen described as a good week of practice, got four consecutive carries for 31 yards to begin the game.
Merrills followed with 33 yards over the next four plays before quarterback Scott McBrien made a 2-yard run - coming without much resistance, like many of the other runs - to give the Terps their first points of the season with 10:02 left in the first quarter.
"All week, Coach said we were going to put an emphasis on the run," said Downs, who finished with 58 yards on 12 carries, while Crawford ran six times for 27 yards. "Our line gave us great push for the run, and they just made the run and we just needed to hit 'em."
McBrien, also looking to recover from a rough opener, completed nine of 15 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, which came on an 8-yard slant to Derrick Fenner with 6:52 left in the first quarter, giving Maryland a 14-0 lead.
"I was definitely more comfortable this week than I was last week," said McBrien, who apparently benefited from a pared-down offense. "The atmosphere was a little different and I was more comfortable with the game plan."
The lone bright spot for the Zips came toward the end of the first quarter, when quarterback Charlie Frye hit Nick Sparks for a 65-yard touchdown, cutting Maryland's lead to a single score.
However, the Terps' defense shut down the Akron running game (34 carries for 84 yards), meaning the Zips' penalties (16) outnumbered their first downs (14). Free safety Madieu Williams, a Towson transfer, had two interceptions.
Maryland returner Steve Suter blew the game open, overcoming a bobble to take an Andy Jerdon punt 81 yards for the first of the team's three second-quarter scores en route to a 35-7 halftime advantage.
The win put Friedgen in a happier mood than a week ago.
"Winning is everything," Friedgen said. "My psyche is better. The sun shines. Girls are better looking. Winning is night and day over the alternative."