As Brandon Ross rounded the right side of the offensive line against Indiana last Saturday, the running back's eyes darted between his teammates and the sideline. He needed wide receiver Malcolm Culmer to hold his block on Hoosiers cornerback Rashard Fant just long enough for Ross to get to the sideline where he could turn upfield.
Ross pointed at Culmer, directing traffic through the secondary. He slipped up the sideline, and 75 yards later, he had his third touchdown of a career day. Though the Terps lost to the Hoosiers, Ross rushed for 245 yards, the fourth-highest single-game total in program history, capping a tumultuous month in which the senior was demoted after his playing time dwindled and then was thrust back into the starting lineup in an unexpected opportunity.
"I definitely felt in the zone," Ross said Wednesday. "It was really just because my O-line and my wideouts were on their blocks and just making reads easy for me. That's really why I was able to see things so well and break off some of the runs that I did."
The most important part of being "in the zone" for Ross, though, was ball security. During his Maryland career, Ross has fumbled 14 times, and the Terps failed to recover nine of those fumbles. He has lost three of four fumbles this season, including one in Iowa territory on Maryland's opening drive in the Terps' 31-15 loss on Oct. 31. Ross' struggles to hold on to the football, combined with difficulties in pass protection, contributed to a stretch in which he had 13 carries over three games.
Before Maryland's 24-7 loss at Michigan State on Nov. 14, junior Wes Brown was elevated to the starting role. With three games left in his collegiate career, Ross had been demoted.
"We had a very talented backfield this year, so you knew the margin of error was thin," Ross said. "It's just one of them things where you've got to continue to play well in order to keep your spot. That's just how it is."
On Nov. 16, Brown was given an indefinite suspension for a violation of the code of student-athlete conduct. That cleared the way for Ross to return to the starting lineup for his record-setting day.
Entering this season, there was optimism that Ross could become a workhorse running back, a player who could speed around the outside, cut through holes along the line or power over linebackers and defensive backs. There had been glimpses of it before.
Ross was Maryland's leading rusher as a redshirt freshman in 2012, when he rushed for 390 yards in only six games, despite splitting carries with Brown, Justus Pickett and Albert Reid. And after Pickett transferred to Tennessee and Brown was suspended for a season, Ross was the Terps' featured back in 2013. He delivered with 12 starts, 776 yards, 4.7 yards per carry and four touchdowns.
But Ross' production dropped last season. He appeared in all 13 games and made nine starts, but he averaged only 32.2 yards per game and fumbled five times with quarterback C.J. Brown leading the team in rushing and Wes Brown back from his suspension.
In the offseason, Ross dedicated himself to getting stronger and emphasized ball security. If he didn't fumble, he was more likely to stay on the field. It showed immediately, and then-coach Randy Edsall raved about Ross' improvement during preseason camp.
"There's something different about him," Edsall said in August. "I see a different Brandon Ross. Whatever he did, whether it's physically, mentally, I like what he's done. To me, he's a different guy this preseason. Maybe because it's his last go-round. He's working hard. He's being productive. He's seeing things. He's running with great vision and doing the things necessary in order to put himself in the position he has."
In the season opener, Ross rushed for a career-high 150 yards against Richmond. A few weeks later, he had 130 at West Virginia.
"The big thing with Brandon is that he's reading the defensive blocking schemes a little better, which allows him to anticipate where the holes may occur," interim coach Mike Locksley said in September. "He's done a good job of breaking tackles as well."
When Ross takes the field against Rutgers, he has the opportunity to etch his name prominently in the Maryland record books. He's currently ninth on the all-time rushing list, but if he rushes for 118 yards against Rutgers, which is 12th in the Big Ten in rushing defense, Ross could vault all the way to fourth, passing the likes of Lance Ball, Bruce Perry, Davin Meggett and Da'Rel Scott.
"It feels good to be in that company," Ross said. "I remember when I first got here as a recruit. I was watching guys like Davin Meggett, Da'Rel Scott, some of the guys that came here before me. I thought they were pretty good players. Over the course of my career, I played four seasons, to be up there in the company of those guys feels pretty good."
When Ross takes the field against Rutgers in a Maryland uniform for the final time, he'll have the opportunity to solidify his name in Terps history. But more than that, he wants to end his Maryland career with a victory. While redshirting in 2011, he watched Maryland close the season on an eight-game losing streak. There was then the six-game losing streak to close 2012. And last season, the back-to-back losses to Rutgers and Stanford ended Ross' junior campaign.
A victory — with friends, family and high school coaches making the trek to Piscataway, N.J., from Ross' hometown of Newark, Del. — would seal not only a rocky past month but also Ross' career in College Park.
"Yeah, it was up and down, but mostly positive," Ross said. "I've got no complaints."