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Down to third-string quarterback, OC Bell and Maryland offense struggle to be first-rate

Back when he first drew up his own plays while watching his favorite college football teams on television, dreaming of becoming a coach, Walt Bell didn't have a third-string quarterback taking a snap.

The only time the second-year Maryland offensive coordinator witnessed that firsthand came in 2008, as his coaching career was starting as a graduate assistant at Memphis.

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"We lost three quarterbacks in a span of about 20 plays at East Carolina," Bell recalled Wednesday. "We had to play the last four games with a combination of tailbacks and a walk-on quarterback. You do what you can. You try to survive."

We’ve got to reinvent ourselves a little bit each week and find ways to window-dress things to continue to run the ball in an effective manner.


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Last year against Indiana, Walt Bell's offense was equally effective running (269 yards on 50 carries) and passing (248 yards on 22 completions in 34 attempts).
Last year against Indiana, Walt Bell's offense was equally effective running (269 yards on 50 carries) and passing (248 yards on 22 completions in 34 attempts). (Maryland Athletics)

Behind Brett Toney, a former walk-on who is now a pharmacist, the Tigers wound up winning three of their last four games to even their record at 6-6 and get into the St. Petersburg Bowl, where they lost to South Florida.

Nearly a decade later, the now 33-year-old Bell is trying to see whether history can repeat itself with sophomore Max Bortenschlager, who will start his fifth straight game Saturday when Maryland (3-4, 1-3) hosts Indiana (3-4, 0-4).

Bortenschlager, who became the starter after sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome and freshman Kasim Hill were lost with season-ending ACL tears in the team's first three games, has struggled with his consistency.

In turn, Bell has had a difficult time finding the right mix of keeping his offense aggressive and his quarterback healthy.

Bell acknowledged that it's been harder to do than in his first season, when senior quarterback Perry Hills, whose strength was running, played much of the year hurt and had obvious trouble throwing deep.

"Is it more difficult? Absolutely," Bell said Wednesday. "You go back to a team like Texas [in the season opener] and they're proving throughout the year that they're one of the best run defenses in America and everybody has struggled to run the football on them.

"But when you've got a guy or two who can gain that extra hat [defender shadowing the quarterback] there's a reason we ran [for] 260 [yards] or whatever it was. It is a challenge. … As you move through the season … the secret gets out. That's the hard part."

Bell was referring to the fact that Bortenschlager, unlike Pigrome, Hill and even Hills a year ago, is not really a threat to move around and out of the pocket.

And given that Bell and coach DJ Durkin have only one other healthy scholarship quarterback in redshirt junior Caleb Henderson, a main goal is making sure Bortenschlager doesn't get injured as well.

"We've got to reinvent ourselves a little bit each week and find ways to window-dress things to continue to run the ball in an effective manner," Bell said.

The Terps, who were among the top 10 teams in the country and the leading rushing team in the Big Ten after gaining 263 yards against the Longhorns and 367 against Towson, showed signs of that in last week's 38-13 loss at then-No. 5 Wisconsin.

Against a team ranked first in the Big Ten and fourth nationally after giving up 78.8 yards a game rushing, Maryland ran for 143 and averaged a respectable 4 yards a carry. The previous two weeks, the Terps had run for 135 yards combined, less than 2 yards an attempt.

In Maryland's last victory, a 31-24 win at Minnesota on Sept. 30 in Bortenschlager's first start this year, two of his early runs, including one for a touchdown, helped put the Golden Gophers back on their heels. It opened the door for Maryland to run for 262 yards.

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Asked whether there are play calls for Bortenschlager to run the ball, Bell said Wednesday: "They're really few and far between, because at the end of the day we've got to keep him healthy, too. Put it this way: We've got to make it count.

"It's got to be worth a first down, it's got to be worth a score. It's got to be setting somebody in their chair and making a point for the rest of the day. It's just got to be effective, letting those people know this guy still exists."

Bortenschlager watches film with Bell and the other quarterbacks every day, meeting for up to 90 minutes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to go over the game plan, and review where improvements still need to be made.

"We do the same thing pretty much every week, but I just think as a whole team the sense of urgency has increased," Bortenschlager said. "Overall, Coach Bell has been pretty much the same."

Bell wouldn't mind seeing a repeat of last year's offensive performance against the Hoosiers. On a windy day in Bloomington, the Terps were equally effective running (269 yards on 50 carries) and passing (248 yards on 22 completions in 34 attempts).

It was by far the offense's most balanced game of the season, though the Terps wound up losing, 42-36.

Asked what he remembers from that game, Bell smiled.

"A bunch of wide-open deep balls that missed," he said with a laugh.

First-year Indiana coach Tom Allen, who was then the Hoosiers' defensive coordinator, recalled being impressed with his much younger counterpart.

How Maryland's offense ranks in the Big Ten

Rushing: 7th with 173.1 yards per game. Passing: 13th with 155.9 yards per game.

"I think the biggest thing that sticks out to me is he understands the scheme that you're running and he creates conflicts to put you in those binds of run-pass issues," Allen said on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference Tuesday. "He's a very good play-caller, a great offensive coach."

Bell understands that some of his critics might be second-guessing his play-calling the past three weeks. A week ago, the Terps recovered an early fumble inside the Wisconsin 5 early on and had to settle for a field goal.

On first down, Bell ran a jump-ball play in the corner of the end zone to junior DJ Moore. The Big Ten's leading receiver came down with the ball but was nudged out of bounds by a defender.

"At the end of the day, that's calling plays," Bell said. "If we press back on the other guy a little bit and DJ drags a toe inbounds, everybody thinks I'm awesome because I gave DJ a chance on a fade at the goal line. … Now I'm not a very good play-caller."

Bell can remember a different feeling after the Terps upset then-No. 23 Texas in the season opener, with Hill carrying the team and helping preserve a 51-41 win after Pigrome was injured in the third quarter.

"Play-calling is one of the most overrated things on the planet," Bell said. "Against Texas, everyone thought I was the bee's knees. You go play Northwestern and you don't do it very well, you stink. But that's part of the business, that's how it goes."

While he loses sleep, Bell grows facial hair, with a three-day growth having sprouted since the team returned from Madison.

"At 4:30 in the morning, I have two choices, you can have 10 minutes to shave or you can get to work," Bell said. "I'd rather get to work."

Bell might second-guess some of his own calls this season, but he isn't doubting the system he has pieced together over the past decade.

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"The system works. It's worked everywhere," Bell said. "There's always doubt, how are we going to find a way to get this done? When you find a way to win, is it more rewarding? Absolutely. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you stay true to who you are."

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