COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Maryland has made a surprising run to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings in spite of a rushing game that ranks last in the league.
The Terrapins (4-2, 2-0) have already doubled their win total of last year and are the lone unbeaten team in ACC play. But their unbalanced offensive attack is a cause of concern for coach Randy Edall.
Maryland is averaging a mere 1.9 yards per carry and its leading rusher, Wes Brown, has 150 yards. Five ACC teams are averaging at least 151 yards rushing per game, twice that of the Terrapins (71.3).
Somehow, the Terps beat Virginia last week 27-20 despite finishing with minus-2 yards rushing.
“There’s no question we’ve got to better running the football. We’re going to continue to work on it,” Edsall said Tuesday. “We can’t do any more than what we’re doing in terms of practice time. It gets back to just doing the little things right.”
Inexperience is a factor. Maryland starts two freshmen on the offensive line, tackle Mike Madaras and guard Andew Zeller. Three of the four rotating running backs are freshmen and the other, Justus Pickett, is a sophomore. Pickett started against Virginia and rushed 15 times for minus-8 yards.
“The offensive line, when you have young guys who don’t have experience, and when you’re changing guys in and out, you don’t get the kind of consistency that you need,” Edsall said. “I think the offensive line has got to get better. They know that. We’ll just keep drilling them.”
A solid running game would take some of the pressure off freshman quarterback Perry Hills, who has been forced to throw to keep drives alive. Maryland has picked up 51 first downs on passes and only 28 via the run; its longest rush of the season went for 21 yards.
“I don’t know, maybe we’ll have to be a team that’s going to have to throw the ball to set up the run,” Edsall conceded.
It won’t get any easier this Saturday against North Carolina State (4-2, 1-1), which ranks fourth in the ACC in rushing defense.
“The running game is our emphasis every week. It’s going to be our emphasis this week,” Maryland senior tackle Justin Gilbert said. “North Carolina State, they twist a lot, they bring a lot of blitzes. The running game, it’s something that’s going to come. There are plays that are there. We see it on film. There are plays we leave out on the field. We just have to execute a little better.”
N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said, “You’re playing with two freshmen in the offensive line and playing with a freshman quarterback, it’s awful difficult sometimes to run the ball in this league.”
Gilbert, however, wouldn’t blame the shortcoming entirely on youth.
“It’s a collective effort,” he said. “The line, there’s plays when we’re doing good and the back does something wrong. Then there are plays when the back is doing his job and we’re doing something wrong. As an offense, we’ve all got to kind of mesh together to get the running game going.”
Against Virginia, Stefon Diggs returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and the Terrapins converted an interception into a touchdown. But Maryland knows it won’t win too many games when its leading rusher is Hills — with seven yards.
“It was a fluke that we won with that statistic,” tight end Matt Furstenburg said. “We have to focus on our running game and get better. It’s just one missed block here or there and it disrupts the whole play. Everyone has got to focus what their assignment is during the second half of the season.”
Gilbert said: “Our passing game is great, our play-action game is great. It’s just getting that running game to where it needs to be.”
That will continue to be Edsall’s focus until the Terps get it right.
“We will run the football,” he said. “We won’t give up on it.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)