Chalk that one up to questions I never thought I'd be asking. At the start of the year, or even just a few weeks ago, suggesting that Maryland needed to pass the ball more would've seemed faintly ridiculous. Now it's so sensible as to be borderline obvious.
But that's one of the nice things about this juncture of the season: you really start to figure out who you are. Young teams, like Maryland, come into the season with question marks and uncertainties that, by six games and seven weeks in, have probably been answered. And, with only six games left, those answers are probably unlikely to be radically changed, either to the good or bad.
So for the Terps, that means they know Stefon Diggs is frighteningly good, that their defense is stout, that the passing game is inconsistent, and, most of all, that they simply can not run the ball. I don't know anything about this team as much as I know that. The numbers: they're averaging 1.88 yards per carry on the season, which is good for 68th - dead last - among AQ conference schools, and 123rd, or second-to-last, among all schools. (Thank you, Tulane.)
With four backs in their first or second year, plus an inexperienced and unproven offensive line, no one expected fireworks or unqualified success in the ground game. But this level of non-production has been both striking and seriously concerning, and it's taking a significant toll on Maryland's total offensive capacity.
Because not only does Maryland struggle at running the ball, they do it a lot. At 60% running plays, Maryland runs the ball more than any team in the ACC save triple option-fueled, 6 yard-per-carry-gettin' Georgia Tech. In fact, the Terrapins are the second-most unbalanced offense in the conference, as no one passes the ball at that high a rate, either; actually, no one even else comes close to 60% in either category. And, as you'd expect, no one in the bottom 15 of BCS schools in rushing average run the ball as much as much as Maryland does. (It probably goes back further, but I didn't check.)
Frankly, it's unusual for any team to do something 60% of the time, even something that they're really, really good at. That's a very unbalanced offense, and if a team is going to be that unbalanced they generally feel really confident in being able to beat the defense at what they're doing. Not only is Maryland unusually unbalanced, they're unusually unbalanced toward a task that they're not even able to adequately perform.
It seems Randy Edsall is starting to notice this, because in his Tuesday teleconference earlier in the week, he said something a little interesting (emphasis mine):
"We know that have to continue to work on it and improve. We can't do any more than what we are doing in terms of practice time. When it comes down to running the football, to me it is very basic. It's coming off the line of scrimmage, it's the offensive lineman blocking the guy against him until the whistle blows, and the running back getting the ball. Maybe we are going to be a team that has to throw the ball to set up a run. But we do have to run the football and we won't give up on it."
That's a lot of bluster at the start, but the final two sentences are genuinely intriguing. I don't want to take this out of context - Edsall clearly emphasizes the importance of the run, and he's not suggesting Maryland's about to become a passing team. His M.O. is running the ball, and it's something Mike Locksley's always been focused on as well. This is who they are, largely, and they'll keep doing them. But he also notes that, hey, maybe the plan needs to change a bit, too.
Considering it, at the very least, is probably a smart idea, since we're at a point in the year when they can't count on natural progression to make up the difference. The offensive line is still gelling and should improve; Wes Brown, the best fit for the scheme at running back, is yet to get extended burn with the first string, partially due to coaches' decisions and partially due to injury. So some improvement is a reasonable expectation, but it's certainly not trending that way right now. They're actually regressing game-to-game, going from 3 yards per carry against Temple to 2.4 against UConn, then to 1.31 against West Virginia, then to 1.23 against Wake, and then finally everything came to a head on Saturday when they managed only -.07 in Charlottesville. That's a mighty strong trend line right there.
I'd still guess Maryland's personnel is probably improving, and probably will continue to do so. And when Brown returns, things should get another little boost. But clearly defenses are getting tougher and better, too, and are figuring out how to stop the Terrapins. Honestly, when they lean on the running game as much as they do, is it any surprise that they're starting to get nailed down?
The plan as it stands now doesn't have a particularly long lifespan, either. It's tough for a team to win games when 60% of their plays go for less than two yards, which is what Maryland's done this season. That they've gotten to 4-2 doing so is hugely impressive, and it speaks volumes about their defense, determination, and grit.
It's also very probably unsustainable. Maryland's wins aren't exactly impressive, with a combined record of 10-15. The only winning record amongst the bunch belongs to Temple, which is 3-2, their best win over 3-4 UConn, who of course beat Maryland earlier in the year. Maryland's finishing stretch, which includes 4-2 N.C. State (with a win over Florida State), 2-4 but talented and explosive Georgia Tech, 5-1 Clemson, 6-1 Florida State, and 5-2 North Carolina, is a very different animal. There are some big offenses in there: the final four opponents have the four highest-scoring offenses in the conference. Maryland's defense will play a role in counteracting that, but they'll likely to start to tire unless the Terps can hold onto the ball more, and regardless probably won't be able to completely shut them down.
Point is, between now and the end of the year, Maryland's offense is going to need to come up big at least once, by possessing the ball enough to play keep-away and/or by putting up enough points to match N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State, or UNC - the 62nd, 26th, 11th, 6th, and 21st scoring offenses in the country. If they don't, it's no postseason. Maybe that performance comes from the current plan, but relying on that is a pretty significant gamble.
Think about why Maryland's running the ball. I can see two big reasons: to protect Perry Hills, and to win time of possession. But at the rate they're going, those things aren't really happening. Against offenses who couldn't (Wake Forest) or didn't want to (West Virginia) possess the ball, the Terps managed to win the ToP battle. But against offenses who have enough talent to match Maryland's defense, like Virginia and even UConn, they're getting outpossessed - in some cases by a heck of a lot. Those five offenses I talked about down the stretch have enough talent to do just that. All of therm are better on third downs and have higher yardage totals than the four teams Maryland's beaten; the defense will be challenged, and they'll need help.
And as for Hills, the failures of the running game have arguably put more pressure on him. He's getting forced into obvious passing situations or desperate comeback attempts late, which allows the defense to key in on him and make things more difficult. More than a third of his passing attempts have come from obvious passing downs on third-and-long or fourth down, where his passer rating is 110.01 (which is made to look better somewhat by defenses readily giving up short completions). On first down, second-down, and third-and-short - that is, on downs when defenses are less able to play the pass and key on him - it's 137.11. Those are downs when Maryland is largely running, not passing; they rely on Hills when it's more difficult for him, not easier.
In fact, ignore your eyes telling you that Maryland struggles to pass. They're right, but they're probably not telling you that Hills' passer rating is 5th in the ACC, and even better when you take out the disaster game against William and Maryland. They're not telling you that he's averaging nearly 8 yards a completion, which is 35th nationally. And that despite a non-existent ground game. Yes, those numbers are driven in large part by his playmaking wide receivers, but that's kind of the point: the strongest part of Maryland's attack is in fact their receivers, in particular guys like Stefon Diggs and Marcus Leak. Getting the ball into their hands is, generally speaking, a good idea. No, the aesthetics aren't great and there aren't a lot of style points. And yes, the numbers are helped by the fact that Hills doesn't pass very much - they'll drop once he does and defenses know to look for it more. But will they drop so much that it'll become a worse option than Maryland's 1.88 ypc ground attack? (Not to mention that, by passing more, the run will become more effective.)
Because that's the question. There's little offensively Maryland can do particularly well, but not being able to do something well in a vacuumis irrelevant. The more important questions is which can they do better? What, even if its not particularly effective, gives Maryland the best chance at victory? It's starting to look like Edsall's idea - passing to set up the run - might be just that.
Now, let's be clear here: the idea wouldn't be for Maryland to suddenly become an Air Raid team. It's too late to make structural changes, anyway, and it's unlikely that would be very successful. But adopting some West Coast principles - horizontal, early-down throws that keep the defense off-balance and set up the run - and fusing it with the spread scheme Maryland already uses makes quite a lot of sense, at least on paper. A West Coast spread, if you will. (And yes, I know the Air Raid has its roots in the West Coast offense. Let me keep my moniker.)
And making some slight changes makes all the sense in the world, if you really think about it. When this scheme was devised, they had certain assumptions about the offense. The big one: C.J. Brown was the starting quarterback. Brown's strength was the zone-read - he was good at reading the defensive lineman, and he was so dangerous that defenses had to respect him or he'd run down the back of the defense for big gains. That would compensate for Maryland's offensive line, because they'd gain an extra blocker on the playside, giving them a structural advantage. The scheme was largely built around that; defenses would need to defend against it, so it would open things up elsewhere on play-actions and bootlegs and screens, all of which would be easier on Brown's arm.
But when Brown went down and Hills became the starter, the assumptions they made about the scheme blew up. Hills, unlike Brown, struggles to read the defense, usually handing the ball off even when the defensive lineman pursues, which negates the advantage of having an extra lineman. And they don't have to respect him as much because they know that when he keeps the ball, he doesn't have the wheels to make big plays. Even when the defensive lineman does stay put, Maryland's discovered that their line often can't capitalize on the advantage, either because they miss a key block or because the defense, knowing that Maryland goes to that well a lot, plays it perfectly. Locksley seems to have learned that over the first few weeks, so he's tried to incorporate more pro-style runs, but the offensive line isn't good enough to block an ACC front straight-up, so that doesn't work, either.
The entire scheme was built around using Maryland's strength running the zone read to compensate for their lack of ability to do most anything else, especially pass the ball. They kept that with Hills, too, because they trusted his legs and the rest of the offense more than they trusted his arm. But now, several weeks into the season, we're starting to see that just maybe the best part of Maryland's offense is, in fact, Hills' arm. (And, perhaps more importantly, Diggs' hands and legs.)
The idea of capitalizing upon that is pretty simple, and it wouldn't require massive changes. They'd simply use the same passing plays they already do: short, precise routes, along with some intermediates thrown in because that's where Hills is at his best. But they'd do it more, especially on early downs. That means Hills wouldn't be under immense pressure to read defenses and make progressions, but because Maryland has receivers who can make things happen in space - Diggs, mostly - they're not giving up on explosive, downfield plays. Low-risk (or as low-risk you can get with a freshman quarterback), still high-reward.
And by spreading the defense out and forcing them to pay attention to the passing game, it'd make inside runs - probably inside zone-reads, based on Locksley's history - easier to convert, assuming they're run properly (because not only would Maryland have an extra blocker, they'd have fewer guys to block up the middle because the defense can't key on it). They may have to bring in Devin Burns a little bit to make aspect of the offense as effective as possible, given Hills' struggles in keeping the ball on the ZR, but traditional run plays would work as well because the formation wouldn't tip Maryland's hand. (This is where I'm delighted that Locksley has significant pro-style looks in the offense.) All that would allow Wes Brown, Maryland's biggest and probably best back, to grind down defenses with chunks of yards at a time, plus use his vision - his strongest asset, I'd say - to bust bigger plays. Then, later in the game, Maryland can actually lean on the ground the same way they want to right now.
Now, that's all very fanciful and works great on paper. But there are two big questions: Can Hills be relied upon to throw the ball, say, 32 times a game instead of 25?, and Can the offensive line block for him? Because early-down passes won't accomplish what Maryland wants it to accomplish if Hills doesn't have time to throw.
No one can answer that first question, not yet at least. We all have our opinions on it, but until Hills is given the chance it's all hypothetical. The second question is more interesting and more practical, since we've seen plenty of Maryland's line and, honestly, it ain't very good. It's the most sack-prone line in the conference, giving up more than three a game. (That's 108th nationally.) Except ... well, 42% of Maryland's sacks have come on third down in passing downs. Along with 2nd and long (more than 10) and 1st and long (more than 10), it's more than half.
In other words, Maryland gives up sacks when defenses can sell out against the pass on obvious passing downs. Again, the failure of the run game forces Hills under pressure - literally, this time. They've allowed only five sacks on first and ten - which isn't good but it's a heck of a lot better than the disaster on third and long - and another five on second and 10 or less. That's not great, of course, but if you took away a few of those third and longs the raw numbers look a lot better. And given that this scheme would be designed to avoid that, allowing Hills to pass more on downs when the defense can't key on the pass, hopefully avoiding more third-and-longs by converting those passes and opening up the run later in the game, the protection issue would, hopefully, not be a deal-breaker.
Once again, it sounds okay on paper, but games aren't played on paper, as Maryland's made clear this year. Hills will be relied upon more, which is the biggest gamble in it. The line will be relied upon to pass block and not give up easy sacks, which is a gamble, too. Passing downs will hardly be eliminated; virtually none of the complaints here will be eradicated. But there's a chance they're at least ameliorated. And if not, what's the worst-case scenario for offensive output? Sixty percent of plays going for less than two yards? Well, they're already doing that. Interceptions are a concern, but Hills hasn't thrown an interception on a non-jump ball in over a month.
It is, at the very least, a worthy possibility. It sounds like it's under some consideration from Maryland's staff, too, and at some point, if they can't get the ground game going, they'll have to pull the trigger on it.
Because Maryland, at their best, with this defense, is not just a team fighting for six wins and Shreveport. No, operating at full potential, they can make noise in the ACC. It's sounds crazy, but they're already 2-0; Georgia Tech (at home) and Boston College are still on their schedule. Upset State, and all of a sudden things get mighty interesting down the stretch, in the most improbable of circumstances. But to get to that point, Maryland needs better than the ACC's least-productive offense.
The personnel ain't changing. Maybe, even only if in minor ways, it's time for the scheme to.