COLLEGE PARK — Going into the 2019 football season, Maryland’s depth and talent at running back was clearly the strength of the team under first-year coach Mike Locksley. Led by redshirt sophomore Anthony McFarland Jr., the Terps had perhaps the most versatile and potentially dangerous group in the Big Ten.
After the team won its first two games, its depth was compromised by season-ending knee injuries to valuable backups Jake Funk and Lorenzo Harrison III. With McFarland now struggling with a high ankle sprain, Maryland is finding it difficult to get much going beyond junior Javon Leake.
In last week’s 40-14 loss at Purdue, McFarland gained just 4 yards on four carries — his lowest production since the first game of his freshman year — and Leake, after picking up 79 yards on seven carries, was seemingly slowed by a leg contusion in the second half.
It has left Locksley forced to adjust not only his game plan if McFarland, who is listed as “day-to-day,” is unable to play or be effective in Saturday’s home game against Indiana, but also make changes to the way he uses both Leake and junior Tayon Fleet-Davis in practice.
Though Leake practiced the past two days and is expected to be at full strength, McFarland’s availability and productivity will be based on whether his ankle is strong enough to get him even close to the player he was last season, when his 1,034 yards broke LaMont Jordan’s longstanding school freshman rushing record.
"The issue we found, we’re a team that has pretty good team speed, and I thought Saturday we didn’t play as fast or even as close to the speed we played against Rutgers and some of the other people,” Locksley said during his weekly news conference Tuesday.
“What it is, is a point of diminishing returns. When Ant [McFarland] can’t take a bunch of reps [in practice] and we’ve lost LoLo [Harrison] and Jake Funk, we’ve got Javon Leake and Tayon Fleet-Davis taking the brunt of the work in practice. You want guys fresh for the game. We’ve tried to adjust some of the things we’ve done.”
Not only did McFarland look several steps slower on several plays — a lot slower than he did on his 80-yard touchdown run in Maryland’s 48-7 win the previous week at Rutgers — Leake was stopped for no gain after catching a screen pass in the third quarter.
“That guy never gets caught and he just did not have the giddy-up that he typically plays with,” Locksley said of Leake. “We’re doing some things from a recovery standpoint to make sure that our speed guys can play fast on Saturday.”
McFarland, who rushed for 210 yards on 29 carries in last year’s 34-32 loss at Indiana, has not looked the same since picking up 132 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown in a 20-17 loss at Temple on Sept. 14. Even in that game, McFarland was stopped on short-yardage situations near the goal line three times.
Except for the 80-yard run against Rutgers, McFarland has gained just 11 yards on 11 carries in his past two games and 35 yards on 20 carries in his past three. He also dropped what should have been a 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth down in the first quarter at Purdue.
“The guy is trying to give us everything he has. But right now with the high ankle sprain, we had an MRI on it this week to take a look, it is a high ankle sprain," Locksley said. "One of the things with it, he hasn’t been able to practice. To be able to play the way you’re capable of playing you need to practice.”
Locksley said that McFarland’s “unfortunate” drop in the end zone was a “byproduct of a guy that hasn’t been able to practice the last three, four weeks. It’s frustrating for him. We’re trying to allow him to heal this week and we’ll see how he feels going into the [Indiana] game."
If McFarland is not able to go Saturday — or is again limited — it will put more of a focus from Indiana’s defense on containing redshirt junior quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, who rushed for career-high 107 yards on 13 carries against Purdue, including a career-long 61-yard touchdown run on a naked bootleg in the second quarter.
The Hoosiers are ranked 38th in the country and eighth in the Big Ten in rushing defense (120.8 yards allowed per game).
Despite the injuries, the Terps running game is still more than respectable. Ranked among the nation’s leaders the first three games, Maryland is 31st overall in rushing yards per game (212.8), behind only Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten. The Terps are tied for eighth nationally in yards per carry (5.63), behind only the Buckeyes among Big Ten teams.
Asked how important it is to get the running game back to where it was earlier in the season, Pigrome said after practice Tuesday: “That’s a tough one. We lost a lot of guys, but I think it’ll be fine. We still got two, three great backs. If Coach uses me in the game [to run], I think it’ll help open up holes for them too just by me being a decoy and not me running the ball.”
NOTES: Locksley also announced Tuesday that senior cornerback Tino Ellis sustained an “upper-body injury” in the Purdue game and is out for the season, effectively ending his college football career. “Tino’s leadership has been great for us,” Locksley said. “And we’ll continue to utilize him as one of the leaders of the team even though he won’t be playing anymore.”
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
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