COLLEGE PARK — With a rainy, windy day forecasted for Saturday because of Hurricane Joaquin, Maryland and Michigan could be forced to take the ball out of their quarterbacks' hands and place it firmly in the bellies of their running backs.
And that puts the Terps' focus squarely on Wolverines running back De'Veon Smith, the bruising runner who made a home on highlight reels in Michigan's 31-0 win over BYU after a 60-yard touchdown run in which he disappeared into a mess of bodies at the line, only to reappear downfield and shake off a defender.
Though Smith's status is uncertain due to a foot/ankle injury he suffered in the victory, the Terps are preparing for any of the Michigan running backs like they would for Smith.
"We have to gang tackle," middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said Wednesday. "We have to come in there, everybody has to swarm to the ball. If everybody's swarming to the ball and more than one guy's hitting him, he shouldn't be able to break out and do things like that. We just have to come out there and hit him before they hit us in the mouth."
Smith has made progress this week and returned to practice, and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno implied to reporters that he expects Smith to play.
This season, Smith has rushed 69 times for 331 yards and four touchdowns. He has two 100-yard rushing games this season, and at 5-foot-11, 228 pounds, he's a bruising back.
"He's a very good back," coach Randy Edsall said. "He's strong. He's powerful. He's got good vision. … It's all about playing low. It's all about taking care of your gap. It's about getting off blocks. It's about running to the football. Those are the things you have to do in order to stop the run, which they do a really good job at."
Even if Smith, a junior, can't play, there's plenty of talent behind him in the Big Ten Conference's fifth-best rushing offense that's averaging 202.2 yards per game. Junior Derrick Green was averaging 5.7 yards per carry a year ago before he suffered a season-ending injury, junior Ty Isaac is a former five-star recruit who transferred from Southern Cal and senior Drake Johnson averaged six yards per carry last season.
So the challenge is clear for Maryland's front seven, especially if conditions force them to stop what they now is coming.
"You've got to put your hands on blockers," outside linebacker Jefferson Ashiru said. "You got to drive people back. You just can't let people run by you."
Maryland ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing defense and allows 200.2 yards per game on the ground. In last week's 45-6 loss to West Virginia, the Mountaineers rushed 59 times for 304 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry.
Michigan offers a little bit of a different wrinkle, though. Under coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines are a straight-ahead power running team, much different from the attack the Terps faced a year ago with former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner executing spread elements. So far, most of the running games Maryland has seen have been out of the shotgun in spread schemes.
Carter said he enjoys playing "downhill" against the run, and that's what he's expecting to see from Michigan on Saturday. Ashiru said the execution of an offense and the players in an offense matter more than the type of offense it is. Nearly any offense executed well has the potential rack up yards and score points.
"Pro style, nowadays, people see it as old school," Ashiru said. "But if you run it how you're supposed to run it, if you're well-coached how these guys are coached, it's an exciting offense to go up against. It's the same keys. We just got to do our jobs, fill our gaps and stop the run."
Edsall: Game situation will dictate Rowe's 'leash'
In Maryland's loss to West Virginia, Edsall and the rest of the Terps coaching staff got their first look at backup quarterback Daxx Garman after starter Caleb Rowe's four-interception performance.
The day after the game, though, Edsall named Rowe the starter for Saturday's game. And when asked how much of a "leash" Rowe would be on in the matchup, Edsall declined to give specifics
"I think the game always dictates what you do there," Edsall said Tuesday. "We've talked to all the quarterbacks and we've told them what the expectations are and what we need to have happen and their play and the situation in the game will dictate anything that would happen after the game starts."
Rowe has completed exactly half of his passes this season and has thrown a Football Bowl Subdivision-high nine interceptions. He provided a boost to the passing game in Maryland's win over South Florida but turned in a dismal performance at West Virginia.
Rowe said that when Edsall named him the starter before the South Florida game, the fifth-year coach said, "We're going to stick with it." The Terps have so far. And it appears when the Wolverines visit a stormy Byrd Stadium on Saturday, that will be the plan.
"Caleb's the starter," Edsall said. "Caleb's going in. We want Caleb to play well. We want him to play well. We want whoever's in there to play well at all positions. But again, it's one of those situations where as we go through the game, we have to see where we are, what's taking place and hopefully, we won't have to make that decision. If we do, we'll make a decision, and we'll live with it."
Rain won't necessarily ground Terps
The rain from Hurricane Joaquin that's expected this weekend is nothing new for Edsall and the Terps. They've already experienced a weather delay in a loss to Bowling Green on Sept. 12. Rowe led Maryland to a rain-soaked win over Virginia two years ago. Even Edsall's Terps debut, four years ago against Miami, was a dreary affair. Byrd Stadium didn't even have turf then, either.
But the main difficulty from Joaquin, which has a variety of uncertain tracks and projections for its landfall, will probably come from a combination of the elements. And that's what Edsall and his staff have been trying to get the Terps ready for.
"If it's just kind of a steady rain, I think you can combat that," Edsall said. "The thing that makes is tough is if you have the rain and it looks like they're calling for anything from 15 to 25 mph winds, so I think you get the wind, you get the rain and you get the cold, that could make it a little bit difficult to throw the football."
Edsall said he'd been keeping an eye on the weather all week long. With the game being moved from its expected 8 p.m. kickoff to noon, Edsall said the biggest change is a loss of some meeting time before the game. But the Terps have already played two noon games at home this season, so they know the routine and timing of things well.
The Terps have shown in the past that they will pass the ball in the rain. The top two passing performances of Edsall's tenure came in the two aforementioned rainy contests, with Danny O'Brien throwing for 348 yards in a win over Miami and Rowe throwing for 332 yards in a one-point victory over Virginia.
So wind becomes the biggest factor. Byrd Stadium is located on North Campus, where the high-rise dorms create wind tunnels, and that could create havoc. Rowe has the strongest arm of any Maryland quarterbacks, but there comes a point where the wind is too much. The kicking game could also be severely impact by swirling winds. But there could also be a benefit — when kicker Brad Craddock hit his school-record 57-yard field goal against Ohio State last season, the wind was at his back.
"We were kind of watching that all week long ourselves as coaches in terms of what was taking place," Edsall said Thursday. "We were trying to formulate a plan that was trying to be able to deal with anything we might have to deal with so, we feel good about the plan we have going on. Now we just got to go in there Saturday and execute."