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Run, Terps, run: Why Maryland football should abandon the passing game

Advanced stats say Maryland's one of the country's best running teams and one of its worst passing offenses.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Maryland football team should stop passing, and almost completely. The Terps should run the ball on roughly nine of every 10 offensive snaps, saving throws for third-downs of more than 5 yards. At least 50 times each game, Maryland should have quarterback Perry Hills, one of his running backs or somebody else take the ball and run. It should almost never leave a Terrapin's hands, not even for a second. The team should not pass, almost not ever.

That's sort of a radical approach, even for college. But Maryland's remarkable passing and running splits through six games this year, coupled with the pass-defending excellence on the rest of the schedule, makes it necessary. And if Maryland's going to have a real chance against Penn State in Baltimore on Saturday, it has to start immediately.

So far, here's where Maryland's running game stands this year, via Bill Connelly.

Maryland's National Rushing Ranks
Stat Avg. Rk National Avg.
Rushing S&P+ 134.9 4 100
Rushing Success Rate 44.90% 46 42%
Rushing IsoPPP 1.14 35 1.08
Adj. Line Yards 150.3 1 100
Opportunity Rate 40% 58 39.1%
Power Success Rate 56% 115 67%
Stuff Rate 19% 60 19.4%

There's a lot of very encouraging stuff here, stuff that's easy to miss during a 2-4 start. Maryland's rushing offense has been absolutely terrific, especially when adjusted for opponent by S&P+. Maryland's offensive line is creating extra yardage better than any other line in the country on run plays (though I'll argue that's a bit misleading because of Maryland's many scrambling run plays with Perry Hills at quarterback). Maryland running backs aren't getting stuffed too often, and running plays in general are leading to successful outcomes more often than they do for most teams.

On the other hand, here's where Maryland's passing game stands:

Maryland's National Passing Ranks
Stat Avg. Rk National Avg.
Passing S&P+ 86.4 107 100
Passing Success Rate 28.5% 124 40.4%
Passing IsoPPP 1.63 28 1.48
Adj. Sack Rate 116.6 49 100

This is almost all putrid, and there's really no way around it. Maryland's IsoPPP – a metric that measures explosiveness – is pretty decent on the back of a few long touchdown passes. The pass protection's been pretty good, too, but what's really worth focusing on are those top two numbers: Maryland is a bottom-20 passing efficiency team in general, and when it comes to succeeding on passing plays (i.e., getting half the yardage for a first down on a first-down play, 70 percent on a second down and converting on third and fourth downs), Maryland's worse than 123 of 128 FBS teams. Maryland is failing on three quarters of every passing drop-back. The Terps also have an FBS-worst 17 interceptions and third-worst 44.1 percent completion rate. This team is awful at pitching and catching, as bad as could possibly be.

In general, Maryland's run-pass success differential suggests the Terps should be running a ton. But when Randy Edsall was head coach and Mike Locksley was offensive coordinator, this didn't happen. Maryland enters the week running on 59.4 percent of standard downs, almost equal to a national average of 60 percent. (They're 63rd of 128 teams.)

Because Maryland's been really good at running and terrible at passing, that proportion should rise under any circumstance. But against Penn State, it should be even more exaggerated: Maryland's passing game should practically cease to exist. The Nittany Lions have fairly strong run defense but one of the country's greatest pass defenses, bolstered by quarterback pressure machines Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel and a talented secondary.

S&P+ National Rankings of Maryland Opponents
Team Pass Defense Rush Defense
Penn State 2 36
Iowa 38 5
Wisconsin 27 47
Michigan State 21 69
Indiana 79 97
Rutgers 123 79

You'll note that Maryland's next opponent, Iowa, is roughly the opposite – a nice pass defense but a great run defense. That's true, and when Maryland visits the Hawkeyes on Halloween, a more diverse offense might serve it well.

But against Penn State and typically for the rest of the season, the numbers point to a commonsense diet of running, and then more running. A handful of college offenses, notably triple-option Georgia Southern and power-running LSU, run the ball on between 77 and 90 percent of their standard-down plays. The Terps don't have a Leonard Fournette, but they've got what's quietly been a brutish offensive line and what my friend Roman Stubbs aptly called a "ruggedly mobile" quarterback in Hills. They've got Brandon Ross at running back.

It's true that running and passing feed each other and that it's hard to have one without the other. But Maryland has made it fairly clear it's not going to have a passing game no matter what. Defenses have scarcely felt the need to put more than four defensive backs on the field at a time, which only makes Maryland's good running so far more impressive.

The Terps have a garishly bad passing attack but a consistently strong ground game. To max out their chances against the strong pass defenders remaining on their schedule – Penn State chief among them – Maryland must play to its strengths and not its weaknesses. That starts with running the ball. It continues with not getting sucked into throwing, no matter how appealing it might look.