Rodgers, Terps pursue redemption at Clemson Fumble last season was turning point

November 02, 1996|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Buddy Rodgers will swagger into Death Valley today.

The pulled muscle in his right thigh has finally healed. He's coming off the best rushing total by a Maryland back in 11 years. It all makes for one big, bad Buddy -- a psychological reversal from the Terps' last meeting with Clemson, which left Rodgers running scared.

The Terps haven't scored against the Tigers since 1992. Last year's 17-0 defeat was particularly galling: Clemson took control with a measly 27-yard touchdown drive that followed a fumble by Rodgers on Maryland's second possession. For the rest of the season, he wasn't the same, and neither were the Terps.

"From that point on, I was playing mind games with myself," Rodgers said. "I was worrying about how I was securing the ball, and from time to time I had a lack of concentration. The ball popped out four or five more times after that."

The following week, at Louisville, Rodgers lost a pitch on the first possession. He had decent games against North Carolina State and Virginia, but fumbled twice at Florida State; the first came on the Terps' 1-yard line, sparked a Seminoles blowout and led to off-season soul-searching.

Maryland nonetheless retooled its offense last spring to take better advantage of the ball-carrying skills Rodgers, 5 feet 11 and 225 pounds, began to show as a Parade All-American in East Providence, R.I.

However, Rodgers pulled a thigh muscle during a conditioning workout in June, and after he aggravated the injury in August, spent the first half of the season-opener on the bench. Coach Mark Duffner tried to hold him out against Northern Illinois, but after a sluggish first half, he inserted Rodgers and the Terps rolled.

Throughout all the injuries to Brian Cummings, Duffner said that ZTC as much as Maryland needed his guidance at quarterback, its rhythm was also affected by Rodgers' limited participation. The record backs him up: The Terps are 5-0 when Rodgers rushes for at least 100 yards.

"It's great to see him finally healthy," Cummings said. "It helps the team, it helps me. When Buddy's in there, teams aren't going to just get up on me."

Limited to 28 carries and 82 yards during Maryland's four-game losing streak, Rodgers vented his frustration against Wake Forest and Duke, which have the worst defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

He got his first 100-yard game since September 1995 against the Demon Deacons, then abused Duke for 176 yards, the most by a Maryland back since Alvin Blount had 186 against Virginia in 1985.

4 "I love him," was Duffner's succinct assessment.

Minus Cummings and Ken Mastrole, the Terps were down to their third-team quarterback, Keon Russell, who threw only two passes over the last 29 minutes against the Blue Devils. The fact that Duke knew Maryland was going to run added to the significance of Rodgers' accomplishment, and provided him with epiphany.

Happy as a blocking back or on special teams, Rodgers has had to be pushed into a featured role. Assistant coach Dave Ungerer couldn't get a rise out of him in the preseason, when he displayed the ACC media guide. The cover featured five running backs, none named Rodgers.

Does Rodgers finally understand his importance to Maryland?

"After last week's game, I've come to realize that I need to touch the ball a lot more," Rodgers said. "I've come to realize that it's time for me to step up and take a leadership role. Before, I really didn't want to. Now, I want to."

Rodgers has made one other adjustment.

"This year, I made it a point to try to hold onto the ball a lot better," Rodgers said. "If I'm at the bottom of the pile, I find myself squeezing the ball."

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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