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Maryland tries to get its running game back in gear for Big Ten opener vs. Minnesota

On Maryland’s first snap last week against Temple, senior running back Ty Johnson got two yards. On the first play of the next offensive series, sophomore Tayon Fleet-Davis was stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

It wasn’t until redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland got his first touch, on the first play of the team's third possession, that a running play worked. McFarland went for 14 yards.

For the next 2 ½ quarters, as the Terps fell further and further behind in a game they would eventually lose, 35-14, what was supposed to be the team’s biggest strength offensively seemed to be stuck in neutral.

Or worse — going in reverse. Heading into Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Minnesota at Maryland Stadium, the Terps will try to find answers they couldn’t come up with against the Owls.

Maryland interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada expects Minnesota will crowd the box, as each of his team’s first three opponents have done.

“It’s critical getting our offense going. Obviously we hope we’re balanced. We’re normally a balanced offense,” Canada said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference.

“We got good talent there with the guys that are healthy. We’re very fortunate to have that many good players at running back. It’s important to get it going, it’s important to get our passing game going.”

The Terps played last week’s game without junior running backs Lorenzo Harrison III and Jake Funk because of injuries. Funk is still sidelined with a broken hand while Harrison’s injury is unclear and his status is still undetermined.

Maryland rushed for just 132 yards against the Owls, including 107 from redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland, who became the third running back to go over 100 yards in a game this season for the Terps and took over as the team’s leading rusher with 179 yards, two ahead of Johnson.

It marked the first time Maryland has had three different players rush for 100 yards in a game in the same season since 1984. Johnson and Fleet-Davis each rushed for over 100 when the Terps ran for 444 yards — the most in a game since 1999 — at Bowling Green.

It’s not going to be easy against the Gophers, who are second in the league in total defense (256.3 yards a game) and third in both run defense (72 yards) and scoring defense (9.0 points per game).

The Terps had 195 total yards against Temple, the worst production from a Canada-coached offense since he was the offensive coordinator at North Carolina State in 2014, when the Wolfpack produced just 154 in a 41-0 loss at Clemson.

“To feel much better about a game than we did on offense [against Temple] is the key,” Canada said. “If it’s with great balance, that would be great. Every game’s different, so I don’t know how it will go, but we need to be much more productive in all phases in our offense.”

If Canada is in charge of calling the plays, getting the running backs prepared for what they will face with Minnesota is up to a former Maryland wide receiver.

Jafar Williams, who played for the Terps from 2000 to 20003 and is ranked 18th in school history for receptions (90) and receiving yards (1,301), returned to his alma mater as running backs coach in February.

Working with receivers for most of his coaching career, Williams spent two years at Kent State (2011-2012) and three at Purdue (2013-2015) with running backs.

“Darrell Hazell, who was at Ohio State, got the Kent State job and when he hired me, he said, ‘I want you to coach running backs,’ ” Williams recalled Tuesday. “I told him, ‘I’ve never coached running backs.’ He said he’ll help me through. I kind of learned on the job.”

One of the first people Williams called after going to Kent State was his best friend, former Maryland teammate Bruce Perry, who ranks seventh on the school’s all-time career rushing list with 2,424 yards. He also called on some coaches he knew.

“I kind of formulated a little game plan,” Williams said. “Interesting thing about coaching, you sit in that room for hours and hours coaching and learn so much information. Most positions — skill positions — you learn what you like, what you don’t like, and what applies to you and your coaching philosophy.”

Williams looked at the opportunity of returning to his alma mater more than the talent he was inheriting in the team’s running backs. Canada, who took over after third-year coach DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August, seems happy with Williams.

“He’s done a great job managing that room,” Canada said. “Being an alum, that always adds something special. There’s stories, there’s history, talking about great players, great victories and the pride of playing here. I think that adds to our entire program.”

In truth, Williams was not that familiar with the running back depth at Maryland despite having coached at Rutgers the past two years.

“I wasn’t really aware of the talent in the room, to be honest,” Williams said.

One thing Williams could tell was the competition. During his first meeting, he noticed how upperclassmen Johnson, Harrison and Funk sat on one side of the room with McFarland, Fleet-Davis and sophomore Javon Leake on the other.

“It was a unique situation when I got in,” he said. “Not the separation in the room, but the dynamic in the room when you have three older guys with a lot of game experience and three very talented young guys. The division in the room was apparent. It wasn’t a bad thing.

“Having dealt with the situation in the past, having multiple talented players in the room, the first thing you have to do is build some type of connection with the guys. They have to believe in each other and they all have to be unselfish. It’s easy to be unselfish in March.”

By the time the season began, Williams believed that the division he first saw had disappeared.

“Right now, they’re genuinely happy for each other’s success,” Williams said.

Johnson, who carried just six times for 23 yards against Temple after getting a season-high 124 yards on 12 carries in the win at Bowling Green, said “Just waiting for the big plays to come, waiting for the big runs to come.”

The wait goes on, at least until Minnesota arrives Saturday.

NOTE: On the same day that the university held a funeral for longtime athletic booster Mary Gossett, an athletic department spokesman said that longtime sports information director Jack Zane passed away Tuesday at age 87. Zane, who graduated from Maryland in 1960, served as SID from 1969 through 1988 and later held the position of ticket manager for another 10 years. He was selected to the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1986.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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