Terps in the running

The performances of Mario Merrills and Lance Ball against Navy give Maryland just what it needs: more options coming out of the backfield.

September 09, 2005|By Heather A. Dinich | Heather A. Dinich,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The phone on the sideline was for Maryland running back Lance Ball. The call came when the Terps were trailing Navy by five points in the fourth quarter Saturday. Assistant coach John Donovan was in the booth, on the other line.

"He said, `You're in for the last drive,' " Ball said.

Ball, a redshirt sophomore who rushed for 1 yard last year, entered the game and immediately turned it around. On fourth-and-eight with less than two minutes remaining, he caught a swing pass, was quickly tripped up but somehow kept his balance, and then eluded a slew of Navy defenders along the sideline. Ball's 20-yard jaunt set up the game-winning touchdown from the 11-yard line.

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has said several times in the past month that he hasn't worked harder in his 36 years of coaching at establishing a running game. After a 100-yard performance by redshirt senior tailback Mario Merrills, and the game-defining run by Ball in last weekend's 23-20 win, the work might have paid off. If nothing else, Friedgen confirmed he has two backs with different styles he can use in different formations.

"We've got good people," Friedgen said. "We need to play them."

Merrills, a former star at Wilde Lake, is a bruiser who broke more tackles Saturday than he did during preseason camp. Friedgen said he hopes Merrills can have a year similar to graduate Chris Downs, who had four career carries before producing more than 1,000 yards as a senior in 2002. Ball has quick feet and some of the best hands in the backfield. (Merrills smiled when he said it pains him to admit Ball is a better receiver.)

"I'm probably a better runner on first-down-type situations," Merrills said. "We're just a little bit different style-wise."

The one thing they have in common is otherwise anonymous collegiate careers. In 2002, Merrills' debut season, he was one of four running backs overshadowed by Downs. Merrills' 40 carries and 157 yards that year remain his career high. Although he played in all 11 games last fall, Merrills carried only 33 times for 124 yards and one touchdown. He surpassed that Saturday with 149 yards and one touchdown on 30 carries.

"I definitely felt like I had something to prove, to myself first, and to my coaches, teammates and to the fans," Merrills said. "Not being the guy who got a lot of time, of course all eyes are on you to see what you do."

Freidgen was watching, and said if Merrills keeps it up, he'll be the running back.

Or maybe it will be Ball, who gained a burst of speed from dropping about 20 pounds since spring, and has simply matured in the last year.

"When he makes a mistake and maybe a coach will get on him, it doesn't bother him like it used to," Friedgen said. "He's grown up a little bit. He's able to take corrections now."

Later Saturday night, Ball watched highlights of himself on the evening news.

"I'm still amazed," said Ball, who averaged 8 yards a carry against Navy and caught two passes for 37 yards. "I don't know how I did it."

"I wasn't expecting to be out there like that in the first game," he said. "Coach said Mario was going to carry the load and I'll come in during certain formations. I told him, `I'll make the most of what I got.' I was surprised I got the last drive."

The decision is based mostly on what personnel group is already in the game. If there are three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back in the game, it's more of a passing set, which would call for Ball. When the groups change, so do the backs.

"It worked out pretty good Saturday night," Friedgen said. "I don't know if Mario would've even caught the ball."

Friedgen said Donovan is one of the coaches on his staff who has the "green light" to make substitutions.

"He was running well, so we kept him," Donovan said of Merrills. "We'll go with the guy with the hot hand. We'll try to get them all in the game, go by feel and that's pretty much the plan. There's no set rotation."

Merrills said he comes to the phone after every series to find out who goes in next. He said his hand cramped in the fourth quarter, opening the door for Ball.

Merrills said he doesn't mind sharing the spotlight.

"It doesn't have to be one guy," he said. "I think Lance definitely brings another dimension to the running game. ... We make a good duo. And Keon [Lattimore], as well, not to leave him out."

The question remains, though, how the Terps' running game will fare against teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Maryland faces Clemson at noon tomorrow in its home conference opener. The Tigers allowed 248 rushing yards in their 25-24 win over Texas A&M. Maryland racked up 210 against Navy.

"We'll find out this weekend," Donovan said when asked if the running game is where it needs to be. "This will be a challenge. These guys are good."

Donovan said Maryland could stick with Merrills again, or incorporate all three.

After all, it's his call.

NOTES: Redshirt freshman fullback Matt Deese has been cleared to play after sitting out since mid-August because of damaged cartilage in his knee. ... Merrills and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson approached Friedgen about donating their game-day per diem to the Student-Athlete Advisory Council's Hurricane Katrina relief fund. Friedgen called a team meeting Wednesday night so they could share their idea, and the players agreed to donate their money from Saturday's game against Clemson and the following home game against West Virginia. "I was a little surprised at that," Friedgen said. "I don't know if last year's team would've done that. ... They're always looking for things like that. I'm proud of our kids." Friedgen said the coaching staff also contributed, and estimated the total to be around $2,500. Members of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council will accept cash donations from fans at all gates at Byrd Stadium tomorrow and Sept. 17. Donations will be made to the American Red Cross.

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