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Maryland football defense gears up for South Florida running back Marlon Mack

The star runner punctuates South Florida's offense.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Maryland football team visited South Florida and held Bulls running back Marlon Mack, a freshman who'd run for 275 yards in his collegiate debut a week prior, to what still holds up as one of the worst games of his career. Mack carried 23 times for 73 yards (a 3.3-yard average), had one catch for 7, never found the end zone and was more or less totally neutralized. The Terrapins won in a squeaker, 24-17, at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

The Bulls are in College Park this weekend, and if Maryland wants to avoid falling to a disastrous 1-2, containing Mack again isn't a bad place to start. He's off to a fine start in his sophomore year: 23 attempts for 131 yards against Florida A&M and then 18 for 83 against Florida State, which has an excellent run defense. Despite Maryland's being gashed for 48 points against Bowling Green last weekend, the Terps' run-stopping has held up well. They'll need it against Mack.

"It's fitting the gaps the right way," said defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski. "Sometimes, with some of the movements you do, some guy doesn't hit his gap and a guy like Mack can hit it quick and hard."

Maryland held Bowling Green to a perfectly fine 4 yards per rush, but Falcons quarterback Matt Johnson and his spread passing attack destroyed the Terps anyway, to the tune of 491 passing yards. If Maryland can hold Mack to anything near the 3.6-yard average of Bowling Green back Travis Greene, the defense should fare much better against the Bulls.

That's because South Florida's passing game is the least potent Maryland will face all season. Quarterback Quinton Flowers completed 12 of 24 passes last week, and USF wide receivers had a grand total of, literally, one catch. Flowers did not find any pass-catcher beyond the line of scrimmage until the game's third quarter, and his passer rating in seven career appearances stands at 114.8. For reference, recent and current Maryland quarterbacks C.J Brown and Perry Hills are at 118.4 and 130. This is not what one might call an "air raid."

The offense also moves at a more leisurely pace than what Maryland saw last week in Bowling Green and will see next week in West Virginia – two units that can eclipse the 100-play mark without breaking a sweat. The Bulls, under co-coordinators Danny Hope and David Reaves, ran 60 plays against the Seminoles and 72 against Florida A&M. Maryland's defense completely broke down in the fourth quarter against Bowling Green, ceding four touchdowns and 28 points in about 10 minutes of clock time. South Florida's slowed speed should be a welcome change before West Virginia turns up the dial again next weekend.

"We've got to do a good job eliminating big plays, stop the run and get off on third down," Dudzinski said.

To that end: On the one hand, Maryland's defense gave up eight of 18 third down conversion tries. That's not great, but neither is South Florida converting one of 13 against Florida State. And South Florida has actually fared reasonably well in the big-play department overall, with 12 plays longer than 20 yards and two longer than 50 through two games.

All of this, of course, is close to irrelevant if Maryland can't once again check Mack. South Florida's offense will hum if he's churning, and it will stall if he won't. There is no need to overthink what Maryland's biggest challenge is this week.

David Shaw, a quarter of Maryland's four-man defensive tackle rotation that has looked strong through two weeks, echoed Dudzinski's emphasis on gap-plugging to slow down Mack.

"The important thing is doing our fits," Shaw said. "Where the coaches want us to align, how they want us to execute plays — just executing to the best of our abilities is the most important thing to stop a runner like that. Just fill our gaps."