Breaking down film of Maryland’s zone-read option vs. FIU

September 2, 2013

C.J. Brown had never passed for more yardage in his college football career, nor had he ever stumbled upon more wide-open touchdowns than those the Florida International secondary humbly offered on Saturday afternoon. No one bothered to cover Kenneth Goins on his 17-yard wheel route and an 18-wheeler could have fit between Stefon Diggs and the nearest defender on his 66-yard score. So Brown finished his afternoon early with a career-high 281 yards.

After the game, in between praising the quarterback’s leadership and confidence, Coach Randy Edsall tossed out some sparse criticism of Brown’s zone-read running. “I thought C.J. was very good,” Edsall said. “I wouldn’t say out standing, because there were a few reads that he could have done a little bit better in terms of the zone reads and things, but I thought he played very well.”

Indeed, Brown turned in the fourth 100-yard rushing game by a quarterback in Maryland history, adding to a list that formerly included himself three times. His 105 yards were nearly double the team’s second-leading rusher (Jacquille Veii had 53 yards on eight carries in garbage time) and nearly 40 more than Maryland’s top two running backs combined.

Brandon Ross and Albert Reid weren’t needed much during the 43-10 rout, or even during the 40-point barrage before halftime. Ross had 10 carries and Reid had nine as Brown stole the show, accounting for five total touchdowns.

This spring, as Ross and Reid battled for first-team repetitions, Ross recognized that, as a running back on this Terrapins team spring-loaded with wide receiver speed and talent, his job was to support those passing endeavors. whether by blocking, receiving or keeping the opposition honest with a strong yards-per-carry. Ross wasn’t great against the Panthers, averaging just 2.1 yards on 10 carries, but Edsall again explained that through poor zone reads.

“I thought Brandon lost some yardage because there were some poor decisions made in terms of reading the guy,” Edsall said Sunday on his weekly conference call. “I thought they ran hard, three guys we feel good about, and we’ll just continue to go as we had with Brandon, Albert and then we have Jacquille too. We have three guys we know who can carry the ball and do a good job for us.”

Fair enough. So Brown missed some zone reads. We rewatched the game and went through Maryland’s 12 read options with Brown under center. Combined, they gained an average of 11.4  yards, compared to 3.8 yards per non-option carry.

Situations, results and sometimes screenshots were charted for all 12 option plays. Apologies for any blurriness and the “full screen” message on one image. Open in new tabs to enlarge. Hopefully these provide a deeper look into Maryland’s rushing game after the first week.

First quarter: First and 10 on Maryland 48

A Panthers linebacker spies the quarterback and has an open lane. Blocks are solid up front and center Sal Conaboy looks to the second level. Brown hands off to Ross, gain of one yard.

First quarter: First and goal on FIU 9

The Terps reached the red zone after Brown’s play-action rollout found Levern Jacobs down the right sideline for 32 yards. But with Mike Madaras and De’Onte Arnett double-teaming inside and Goins springing into the flat, Ross had no blocks here. Three defenders had clear vision. He was forced outside and lost four yards. When Ross assumed the starting job late last season, the Terps relied on long toss-sweeps around the corner that helped the redshirt freshman to two 100-yard outings in the final three games. He has the speed to hit the outside, but coming across the backfield allowed the defense to catch up and penetrate.

This set Maryland back to second and goal from the 13, and the drive resulted in a chip-shot field goal.

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First quarter: Third and two on FIU 5

Brown kept it here, his first carry of the game and by proxy since Nov. 2011. He was immediately stuffed. Ross may have been able to bounce outside, but three offensive linemen somehow jumbled into a mob at the 3-yard line, leaving two defenders with clear paths to Ross. He probably would have missed the first down too. This failed conversion led to another field goal and a 6-0 Maryland lead.

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First quarter: Second and six on Maryland 17

Absurd play from Brown. Maryland brought Diggs into the backfield, Brown faked the inside handoff and rushed past the line of scrimmage until four defenders surrounded him. He Superman-dove and somehow pitched to Diggs, who bolted down the left sideline for 26 yards. Ridiculous.

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First quarter: First and 10 on Maryland 43

The very next snap, Brown keeps it and goes for the right-side A gap. The arrowed player, spying on Ross, winds up coming around the edge and making the tackle on Brown anyway for a 1-yard gain.


First quarter: First and 10 on FIU 29


Brown’s first touchdown came from a diamond formation. Three linebackers pinched the middle, so he faked the handoff to Ross and looked for room on the outside, following his fullback blocker Goins. 


Goins released to the second level and clips cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon enough to send him stumbling towards the sideline. To his right, another solid block gives Brown room to outrun the three defenders in pursuit down the sideline.

Second quarter: First and 10 on Maryland 19

The Terps went nearly two drives without a zone-read option play. Brown’s 25-yard touchdown to Deon Long was set up primarily by two third-down conversions: a four-yard rush by Ross and an absurd 10-yard one-handed catch by Diggs. The next drive, left tackle Mike Madaras false started on first down, Reid took an option pitch for four yards, rushed for three yards and then Madaras got bulldozed by a blitzer who caused Brown to fumble.


Back on their 19-yard line, up 20-10 after FIU’s lone touchdown, the Terps again lined in a diamond formation. Tight end David Stinebaugh pulled around the edge. Six defenders within five yards had paths to Brown, but he out-sprinted them all for 64 yards. The next play was his touchdown pass to Goins.

Second quarter: First and 10 on Maryland

Brown fumbled the handoff to Ross and instead kept it himself. He lost one yard.

Second quarter: Second and 10 on FIU 40

Reid gains three yards. Maryland brought Diggs in motion again, and Brown could have pitched it to him rather than inside handoff to Reid, because getting Diggs more touches is always a good thing.

Second quarter: Third and 1 on FIU 14

Diamond formation, Reid goes east-west for the third-down conversion. Solid run from the sophomore, bouncing off tackles and staying on his feet long enough to move past the chains.

Second quarter: First and 10 on FIU 11

Diggs motions into the backfield but Brown keeps the option. Except he has no where to run. Amba Etta (No. 84 by the near sideline) is moving onto the safety. Three offensive linemen have made a conga line up front, clearing an inside hole for Reid. Three defenders have pathways to Brown.


Brown’s change of direction made the defensive lineman stumble and fall behind. Still, he was tasked with running from Point A to Point B before those two arrowed defenders closed the gap. He did. Etta hit his block, and Brown hit the end zone.


Third quarter: First and 10 from Maryland 39/Third and 3 from Maryland 46

The game safely out of reach at 40-10, Maryland called three straight runs — including two options — on this three-and-out possession. The Panthers covered Brown’s four-yard keeper well on first down, staying disciplined on their assignments even as Diggs motioned to the backfield. Reid rushed for three yards on a straight handoff out of shotgun on second down, then Brown had a two-yard keeper on third down. He looked to beat his spy to the outside, but FIU closed the gap too quick. Reid (at Brown’s right peeling horizontally) might have had the better path on this play. The failed conversion ended Brown’s day.


Brown’s runs of 29 and 64 yards ballooned the average somewhat, but Maryland’s three rushes of 20-plus yards came on read options. Ross, the proclaimed starter who finished with just 21 rushing yards on 10 carries, lost a net three yards on his two option carries. His straight handoffs netted 26 yards on eight carries.

Ross and Reid’s lack of production stemmed more from the blistering pace Brown and the receiving corps set early. One game isn’t enough to suggest offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will deviate from his plan to factor Ross and Reid into the offense. There will come  time when the Terps need backfield production to open up spacing for Diggs, Long and others. But with touchdowns coming so easy via Brown on Saturday, why even bother handing it off?

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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