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Weak ground game has Terps running in place

September 22, 2005|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - It has been increasingly difficult for the University of Maryland football team to make a stand these days.

It's tough to have a firm base with only one leg.

Maryland's offense is hopping around these days, especially since the running game has been all but grounded for the last two weeks. And without the ability to run, the Terrapins have been prevented from having the ability to win.

"It is frustrating because of the amount of work that we have put in it," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "We aren't giving up. We got the elements to be a good offense. It's going to come. We are going to keep trying to have a running game as long as I am here."

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But it isn't coming fast enough if the Terps want to return to bowl game status.

Maryland had 210 yards rushing in its season-opening win against Navy, but has managed just 106 yards (56 vs. Clemson and 50 vs. West Virginia) in the last two weeks. Featured back Mario Merrills had 149 yards against Navy, but has been held to just 56 in the last two games, both disappointing losses.

The lack of running has caused a shakeup along Maryland's offensive line and thrown open an impromptu competition for starting running back before this week's game at Wake Forest.

"As far as the running back situation goes, it will be a case of who practices the best," Friedgen said. "All of our runners have strengths and weaknesses. It's up to us to get them in in the situations where they are able to use their strengths."

Merrills is the senior while Lance Ball and Keon Latimore have little experience as sophomores. While they are competing, the Terps are looking elsewhere to come up with answers.

One drastic step might turn the Terps into a passing team, just for the chance to run the ball.

"I think we can throw the ball and win," Friedgen said. "I believe in running a balanced offense, but that doesn't mean it has to be 50 percent running and 50 percent passing the ball."

But passing has been where the Terps have been able to make their biggest moves. With targets like tight end Vernon Davis and receivers J.J. Walker and Derrick Fenner, quarterback Sam Hollenbach has some targets.

"I think the running game will come together, but right now the passing game is doing well," Fenner said. "I think we are the strength right now. We are running better routes and have been doing a better job catching the ball."

Still, Maryland is finding itself coming up on the short end of two key offensive situations that help decide the outcome of the games - third-down conversions and play in the red zone or inside the opponent's 20.

Maryland's shows its youth on the offensive line in short-yardage plays, something that baffles Friedgen.

"We have to get better at our third-down situations," he said. "It's ironic. We're at 30 percent when we are third and 7 to 10 and we are at 10 percent at third and 2 to 3. That's where we need to get better. I broke down every one of those situations. A missed assignment here or not picking up pressure there ... we need to do a better job executing."

Executing on offense is a different type of work than it is on defense. And when an offense doesn't react and adjust, its inability is more glaring.

"We can't do that anymore if we're going to win," said left guard Donnie Woods. "There's one or two mental errors here and there. The front side may be doing real well on a play, and there's a breakdown on the backside.

"There's definitely going to be an emphasis on getting the running going this week. We've got to run the ball well to win."

The lack of points in prime scoring situation is even more disturbing to Friedgen.

"In the red zone, the worst case scenario should be you come away with a field goal," Friedgen said. "We were at the 20 the other day with a third-and-5 play and took a delay-of-game penalty to make it third-and-10 and then got sacked and fumbled to take us out of range. We have a kicker in Dan Ennis who is kicking his butt off, but didn't give him a chance."

A more consistent running game would lessen a few of those problems. Meanwhile, Friedgen worries about the dangers of a pass-oriented attack, but the necessity might answer a need at the same time.

"If you're constantly passing the ball, they start to expect it," he said. "But, if they are going to play against the run so heavily, it's going to be there. And maybe all the passing will open up the running game."

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