Big running plays harder to find amid quarterback shuffle at Maryland this season

Just as junior running back Ty Johnson is quick to credit the Maryland offensive line for many of his long touchdowns, he is also slow to blame the team’s revolving quarterback situation for his not being as productive this season as he was as a sophomore.

Still, it’s hard to deny the obvious.


Since opposing defenses became more familiar with sophomore quarterback Max Bortenschlager after Maryland’s first two quarterbacks, sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome and freshman Kasim Hill, suffered torn ACLs in the first three games, the running game has not been as explosive.

While Johnson and the other running backs have had some good games — most recently last week when they rushed for 149 of the team’s 180 yards on 27 carries in a 35-10 loss to Michigan — the quagmire at quarterback has definitely changed the offense.


“Anyone that has a quarterback that can run, it benefits their offense,” Johnson said Tuesday. “If you’ve got a dual-threat guy, he can stay in the pocket and make plays downfield or create a play by himself by making something happen by running the ball.”

Maryland coach DJ Durkin said Tuesday that sophomore quarterback Max Bortenschlager will start at Michigan State Saturday "if he's healthy."

A year ago, when the Terps beat Michigan State, 28-17, at Maryland Stadium, the offense had one of its best — and most balanced — performances since DJ Durkin took over.

The Terps rushed 42 times for 247 yards and two touchdowns, while then-senior quarterback Perry Hills, after taking a week off because of an injury, completed 21 of 27 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns.

“We definitely had Perry that could make plays, throwing the ball on the perimeter or throwing it downfield,” said Johnson, who gained 115 yards on only nine carries against Michigan State last season. “Our offensive line was getting amazing push on the ball, knocking guys over and making gaps. If we come out with that urgency, a lot of plays we have in will get explosive plays and get points.”

A slumping Maryland team is hoping for similar success Saturday when it returns the visit to East Lansing, Mich., to play No. 22 Michigan State. This time, it’s Bortenschlager who’ll be rested after being held out of last week’s game against Michigan for an undisclosed injury.

Given that the offense has been reworked to accommodate Bortenschlager’s limited mobility — at least when compared to Pigrome, Hill and even sophomore walk-on Ryan Brand, who started last week — Durkin has said the running game has performed well for the most part.

The Terps are fifth in the Big Ten in rushing (173.3 yards per game). A year ago, Maryland finished fourth in the Big Ten (199.5), which was largely a byproduct of big runs by Johnson and then-freshman Lorenzo Harrison III.

Durkin doesn’t like to use the quarterback injuries as an excuse, but knows they have compromised the team’s running game.

Linebacker Shane Cockerille has been reinstated and will likely play Saturday at Michigan State.

“Obviously there were a couple of games when you can say it wasn’t [a factor], but as a whole I think it has,” Durkin said in a teleconference Thursday. “I think it’s hard to measure or understand how much it affects you with the quarterback and the style of run game we have.

“If somebody took a pro-style run team and said they couldn’t have their fullback, you’d be struggling running power and ISO [offense]. We’re a spread team that wants to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage and be physical, and all those things. A large amount comes from all those things and the threat of the quarterback running.”

Since he made an early first down and later scored on a touchdown run in a 31-24 win at Minnesota, Bortenschlager has found it difficult to stay upright and healthy. After getting knocked out of two previous games when he took big shots, Bortenschlager suffered an apparent concussion against Rutgers.

Brand, who began his career at Air Force and had not played an offensive snap until coming in for Bortenschlager late in the fourth quarter, nearly leading Maryland to a tying touchdown at Rutgers, got off to a slow start against Michigan.


The offense mirrored its quarterback, and both improved in the second half. Despite the fact that Brand’s more of a dual-threat quarterback, Durkin announced Thursday that Bortenschlager would likely start against the Spartans if he had no setbacks at practice.

Offensive coordinator Walt Bell, whose offense averaged more than a point a snap when it scored more than 50 points in each of the first two games with Pigrome and Hill at quarterback, conceded that the pace and productivity of his unit has been impacted by the injuries.

"We're a run-first football team and that's what we do,” Bell said Wednesday. “Now, where we are right now as an offense, they know that we're going to run the ball as well, so it's a little bit harder to be explosive. I think there's two challenges.

“No. 1 is how can you create an explosive run game when they all know that you have to run the football. No. 2, the other challenge as a play caller is just the patience. Not that there's problems with that, but it's a little bit different than what you're accustomed to.”

It has probably impacted Johnson the most. A year ago, when he rushed for 1,004 yards and broke a 55-year-old school record with 9.1 yards per carry, Johnson had nine plays of at least 40 yards in the last 10 games.

This year, he has 770 rushing yards through 10 games and is averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He has just four plays over 40 yards, three in the first two games. His only big touchdown run since the two quarterbacks went down was a 34-yard game-winning score against Minnesota.

Johnson, who went over 2,000 yards for his career in the Michigan game, said he and the other running backs are capable of making long runs, even against the likes of Michigan State and Penn State, which plays at Maryland in the season finale next week.

“The big runs will come,” Johnson said. “If you watch film, a lot of the runs [this year] I’ve been lowering the shoulder and getting short yardage. It’s about getting the necessary yards to get the first [down] and moving the chains. Those [big] runs will come eventually.”

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