Downs showing Terps his upside

Fifth-year back gains limelight after 212 yards, 3 TDs in win vs. Ga. Tech

College Football

October 19, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen had to smile at the sight. There was fifth-year senior tailback Chris Downs, in the wake of the Terps' 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech on Thursday night, being interviewed on national television on the Byrd Stadium field.

There was Downs, a shy, unassuming type who, until a month ago, was an unknown running back beginning the final season of an anonymous collegiate career.

That is no longer the case. Not after Downs supplied the spark Maryland needed to turn a 6-3 halftime lead into a rout with the game of his life. Not after the kid who came to College Park by way of Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy shredded the Yellow Jackets for 212 yards rushing and three touchdowns, both career highs.

"It's a neat story, pretty unique. I feel really good for the kid," Friedgen said. "Seeing him being interviewed by ESPN, I thought to myself a year ago, I wonder if he thought that ever was going to happen."

Two months ago, Downs was a fourth-stringer in a deep backfield headed by returning star junior tailback Bruce Perry. Then, Perry went down with a torn groin muscle 11 days before the season opener, leaving Downs behind Jason Crawford and Mario Merrills on the depth chart.

So much has changed since then. Perry is still trying to get back into action as his injury continues to heal. Crawford lost his job after an ineffective start in the season opener against Notre Dame. A week later, Friedgen decided to reward Downs, who had four career carries at that point, for excellent work in practice by giving him a start against Akron. And since then, freshman Josh Allen also has thrust himself into the backfield picture.

But Downs, who first made noise with a 147-yard effort against Division I-AA Wofford on Sept. 28, truly arrived against Georgia Tech by gaining 183 yards in the second half. His 64-yard burst around the right end - thanks partly to great blocks by fullback Bernie Fiddler and tight end Jeff Dugan - for a score midway through the fourth quarter put the Terps on top 27-3 and put the Yellow Jackets on ice.

"The coaches told us at halftime just take the ball and go right at them, and that's what I was trying to do. I just tried to get downhill as fast as possible," said Downs, who had irritated running backs coach Mike Locksley recently with a tendency to try faking out defenders instead of running more decisively.

"During practice, sometimes I try to make a cut here, a cut there, a cut here. The coaches told me to stop all of that dancing, make a decision and go downhill. I saw daylight and I just hit it [against Tech]," added Downs, who leads Maryland with 600 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.

A few feet away from where reporters gathered around Downs after the game, senior wide receiver Scooter Monroe surveyed the scene.

"It took [Downs] a while to get here, but he's finally here," Monroe said. "When you see guys like that make it, you get excited."

As for where Perry fits into the backfield mix, Friedgen said, "I've got to let Bruce determine that. Once he goes at full speed, we'll see who is the best back."

Friedgen still wants more consistency out of the Maryland offense, even though the Terps are averaging 41 points during their four-game winning streak. The attack did stagnate throughout a first half that yielded only 33 yards rushing and two field goals by Nick Novak.

Quarterback Scott McBrien played one of his better games of the year by throwing for 198 yards, including 107 in the first half, when the Terps' ground game was stalling. He teamed up with Monroe for 106 yards, marking the first time a Maryland receiver had broken 100 yards in five years. But McBrien did overthrow fullback James Lynch in the flat on what would have been a touchdown pass in the first half.

The offensive line drew especially high marks, both for clearing the way for Downs and for protecting McBrien so effectively.

Friedgen gave the Terps the weekend off, and Maryland then faces a stretch of four games on the road over the next five weeks, as it tries to make a move into contention for the Atlantic Coast Conference title race.

"There were a lot of mistakes, mental mistakes [against Tech]. We're a young team who is gaining some confidence," he said. "I don't think we've played our best yet."

NOTES: Outside linebacker Jamahl Cochran suffered a pulled hamstring and is questionable for the Duke game. ... McBrien suffered an eye abrasion late in the third quarter but returned.

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