College Park — As much as Maryland’s success Saturday will depend on how its defense matches up with No. 21 Syracuse’s offense and its two-back formations, the Terps’ ability to use their own running backs in various ways also will play a significant role.
“To me, the best thing we can do is try to establish the run, and use our tempo and get the ball out to our best skill guys as quickly and often as we can,” first-year coach Mike Locksley said Wednesday.
Based on what Maryland did in its own opener — a 79-0 win over Howard — the Terps seem to be deeper and more dangerous at running back than they’ve been since the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Locksley was running backs coach and LaMont Jordan was the featured performer.
“The running backs, to me, have been the strength of our team,” Locksley said. “Those guys are all great workers. I like the way they go about their business during practice. It was good to get all those guys involved in the run game.”
In rushing for 317 yards on 48 attempts against Howard, Maryland’s biggest runs came from its backups. Redshirt junior Jake Funk and junior Tayon Fleet-Davis led the Terps with 79 yards each, with Funk scoring on a 24-yard run. Redshirt junior Lorenzo Harrison III finished with 62 yards, including runs 30 yards and 20 yards.
It was not only an example of Maryland’s depth but also showed how healthy the Terps are, given that Harrison and Funk missed most of last season with injuries. It also allowed offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery to keep his two top backs fresh for what might be viewed as the team’s most crucial game in 2019.
Playing against a Howard defense that stacked the line of scrimmage with an extra defender in order to stop the run, redshirt sophomore Anthony McFarland Jr. carried just six times for only 18 yards, but managed to score two short touchdowns. Junior Javon Leake had just three carries for 23 yards. Leake caught two passes for 15 yards and McFarland caught one for 14.
Locksley said after the game that Howard’s defense basically forced the Terps to throw the ball early.
“If you watched the game, they brought linebackers, they brought guys from all over the field, which makes it hard to run,” Locksley said. “When we talk about being balanced on offense, that’s being able to do both really well. If somebody’s going to try to take the run away from us — we’ve got good running backs and they made the decision to stop the run — we were able to throw the football.”
New quarterback Josh Jackson completed 15 of 24 passes for 245 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, compared with 16 rushes for just 56 yards. But the adjustments Montgomery made in the second half, even with McFarland and Leake on the sideline, allowed the Terps to run wild. The Terps rushed 32 times for 261 yards after halftime.
It will be interesting to see whether Maryland also uses its own two-back formation this week. Given that Locksley has promised to put as many of his best playmakers on the field together, it wouldn’t be a shock to see McFarland and Leake out there at the same time.
Locksley said the strength of his team’s running game has allowed his defense to see what it might face against the Orange.
“It won’t be foreign to our defense to see two backs in the backfield and the things that come along from an offensive standpoint,” Locksley said. “[o coach Dino Babers is] a good coach and good coaches adapt to what their personnel is and what the strengths of their personnel are.”
Sophomore linebacker Ayinde Eley said opposing defenses will be challenged with slowing Maryland’s run game, even a defense as fast and disruptive as Syracuse’s. The Orange (1-0) forced four turnovers, had eight sacks (the same number as the Terps against Howard) and held Liberty to minus-4 yards rushing in a 24-0 win.
“I tell all of them, ‘They make me better every day,’ ” Eley said. “Trying to catch them. Ant [McFarland], he‘s going to hit it. If you’re not in your gap, or the right spot, he’s going to make you pay for it. Javon, he’s so shifty. You can’t get a clean hit on him. And then Tayon, just a big physical back. I tell everybody, I go against the best backs in the country every day.”
Fleet-Davis said Saturday’s opener was indicative of Maryland’s potential to have one of the best running games in the Big Ten.
“I think it showed how flexible we are, me and Jake being able to run the ball very well Saturday without using our guys like Anthony McFarland that much and Javon Leake, also Lorenzo Harrison,” Fleet-Davis said.
One thing the Terps might try to exploit is short passes to their backs, as well as to tight ends Tyler Mabry and Chigoziem Okonkwo going up against a group of fairly untested Syracuse linebackers. It could put the Orange back on their collective heels.
“I think it makes it very tough [on defenses], especially with Coach Locks being able to use all different types of guys and different types of formations,” Fleet-Davis said. “He’s able to get his best guys in space, and that’s what he really preaches.”
Said Locksley: “With the skill set our guys have, in space I think it creates a competitive advantage for us. For us, it’s a matter of making sure our best players to get the opportunity to touch the football in a lot of different ways. It’ll be a challenge this week with the front that Syracuse has and the experience they have on the defensive side of the ball.”
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