After Terps fullback Tyler Cierski exited to the locker room with an unknown injury, Maryland compensated with multiple-tight end sets, providing extra protection for quarterback Perry Hills. And as the true freshman engineered the 75-yard game-clinching touchdown drive with Maryland clinging to a two-point lead, the running game delivered the knockout blow.
No protection was needed, either, for a corps that’s stepped up in closing time over the past two weeks.
To be in possession of three serviceable running backs is hardly a disastrous problem, especially with projected starter Brandon Ross still nursing a hamstring injury. Justus Pickett has been the most consistent through the season’s first two weeks, and though Albert Reid and Wes Brown have each, in succession, experienced their share of “freshmen moments,” the pair have each added an additional backfield spark.
Earlier this week, Terps Coach Randy Edsall iterated his desire for a feature running back. But the platoon system has worked so far.
The merry-go-round of starting backs, which has through two games has proven to be merely a ceremonial label with little bearing on predicting future carries, went from Reid in the opener against William & Mary to Pickett in Philadelphia against Temple. Brown never played versus the Tribe, while Reid had zero carries Saturday.
Both instances, Edsall said, were matters of circumstance. The Terps had planned to utilize Reid, who finished with 29 yards on 12 carries and a lost fumble two weeks ago, in goal-line and short-yardage situations at Lincoln Financial Field, situations that never surfaced with the offense either firing on all cylinders or fumbling the ball away.
Instead, Brown set up two second-quarter touchdowns with first-down rushes of four yards (after an eight-yard carry) and 21 yards. And though he lost two fumbles, the first, on the opening play from scrimmage in the second half, came after a 10-yard rush.
“I’ll tell him to put two hands on the ball,” Edsall said. “This is college football. This isn’t Good Counsel football anymore. And Wes knows that he made a mistake, but again we’re not going to be down on Wes. He’s out there trying, and it’s a learning experience. That’s why we put him back in there. And he’ll be better for it.”
After all, the 36-27 win over Temple was Brown’s first taste of college action, as was the 7-6 win over the Tribe for Reid. Edsall said Maryland was never “down” on Reid, just that “there were only so many carries.”
“We’re a work in progress, and we’re trying to make us the best we can be, and we know we have some guys back there that can do things,” Edsall said.
Through it, Pickett has been the workhorse, the back the Terps have turned to in the fourth quarter on both Saturdays this season. Albeit too early to anoint the sophomore as a closer just yet, the statistics are telling. Pickett has 10 carries for 51 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns in as many fourth quarters. In the six other periods, he has 22 carries for 63 yards (2.9 yards per carry).
It has the Terps finally closing out games, something the team preached throughout the offseason and into fall practices.
“That was definitely the issue last year, finishing last year, and that was the main concern, making sure we played all four quarters,” Pickett said. “As a team, I just felt the team chemistry coming together, I knew I had to go out there, make plays, and when their number was called, they stepped up.”
When asked about his fourth-quarter success, Pickett had a simple answer.
“As the game goes into the fourth quarter, I get stronger,” he said.
Fair enough. Pickett has turned into a stronger runner this season, evidenced by the way he bulldozed into the end zone for the seven-yard touchdown run that gave the Terps some breathing room. He was listed at 175 pounds entering last season, but has bulked up to 190 now.
He’s also become more comfortable with the system, hitting holes faster because he’s more familiar with his offensive linemen, seen Saturday on his 15-yard burst with 2:05 left that allowed Maryland to run out the clock.
And through the summer workouts, the team’s director of strength and conditioning Drew Wilson pushed the Terps to the brink. As the players worked and worked, Pickett felt himself getting tired.
But somehow, by the end, he felt stronger. And every time, he finished the workouts first.