Maryland's offense seems to be fraught with problems, from Danny O'Brien's inconsistency and lack of confidence to the mid-game droughts that have effected the Terrapins in every game. But one problem that isn't getting a lot of publicity may, in fact, be one of the bigger issues Maryland is facing: the lack of big plays.
The thought occurred to me after the West Virginia game two weeks ago, after I watched Clemson's Sammy Watkins run in a 65-yard touchdown against Auburn. I ask you this: what was the last big, dynamic, long play Maryland had this year? If you're like me, you're probably having trouble thinking of one.
That stands in stark contrast to last year's offense, which thrived on the big play, and sometimes seemingly only on the big play. You don't have to think back too far to find one: Da'Rel Scott ripped off a 91-yard run in the Military Bowl's fourth quarter. Then there's Torrey Smith's two long touchdowns against West Virginia, or Davin Meggett's 67-yard run against Navy, or Matt Furstenburg's 53 yard reception against Clemson, and actually a lot more.
So I went back and looked at the numbers. Through four games this season - that's 286 plays - Maryland has exactly one play of 30 or more yards: the 52-yard pass from O'Brien to Kevin Dorsey in the Miami game. Since then, the longest play was a 27-yard Kerry Boykins reception against Temple.
To recap: Maryland has one solitary play of 30+ yards in the past four games. Last year, for comparison's sake, Maryland a play of 30+ yards about every 90 snaps. Through four games, last year's team had eight plays of more than 30 yards. In fact, they even had six plays of more than 50 yards.
Those big plays helped Maryland out last year big time: six of those eight 30+ yard plays were touchdowns, and another set Maryland up inside the 10 and directly led to a touchdown.
It's no big surprise that big plays lead, more or less, to touchdowns. In fact, they're the best, most efficient way to score. I love the long, soul-sucking drives that Maryland's offense has taken a liking to as much as anyone else, but they require a lot of plays. Each new play is a new chance for the offense to make a mistake - miss a read or a block, drop a pass, overthrow a receiver - and kill the drive. A long play skips that possibility; it turns one of the four stalled drives against West Virginia into a touchdown.
The next question, of course, is why Maryland is lacking these big plays they were so successful with last season. It's pretty obvious, really. The first part is what they lost from last season in Da'Rel Scott and Torrey Smith. Smith accounted for three of the six 50+ yard plays through the first four games, and Scott had four of them over the course of the season. They were quick, fast, and well-suited for long plays. Davin Meggett is great, but he's a tougher, more physical runner without a breakaway gear, while Kevin Dorsey - Smith's replacement - is a bigger, more possession-oriented receiver, instead of Smith's downfield vertical threat.
(For the record, that problem is another great indicator of Maryland's struggles in consistently landing dynamic, big-time talent, local or otherwise. It's why the Stefon Diggs and Cyrus Jones of the world are so important at this point.)
But much of it also has to do with Gary Crowton's short-pass-oriented, dink-and-dunk, screen right/run off-tackle/screen left scheme. Quite simply, Danny O'Brien hardly ever takes shots downfield. Screen pass after screen pass isn't conducive to big plays, especially if the offense fails to try longer passes when the defense inevitably creeps up.
In retrospect, perhaps it's no surprise that a struggling offense struggles to create big plays, just as much as they struggle to run or pass the ball successfully. But I did find it interesting, and big plays aren't necessarily 100% connected to offensive success. Just a bit of a process in thought.
Crowton isn't likely to change his scheme. Nor is Maryland likely to suddenly grow big-time athletes. So it's looking like Maryland will be operating outside of the big play paradigm for most of the rest of the season. That won't be making anything easier on Maryland's struggling offense in the next few killer games.