As the Maryland football team was about to depart from the Roanoke aiport after its 27-24 overtime victory at Virginia Tech on Saturday, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart went online to check the score of Boston College’s game against North Carolina State. It was then that he saw the rushing total for Eagles running back Andre Williams: 339 yards, an ACC record.
“That kind of kills your euphoria right there,” Stewart said. “That can curb your enthusiasm.”
Maryland has faced strong, NFL-bound quarterbacks this season — Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd come to mind — but Stewart’s unit has yet to be challenged by a running back like it will Saturday afternoon at Byrd Stadium.
Williams has rumbled for 1,810 yards this season, by far the nation’s best and nearly double the total of Miami sophomore Duke Johnson, who ranks second in the ACC in that category. Williams leads the league in all-purpose yardage despite catching zero passes and returning zero kicks or punts. His 14 touchdowns also lead the conference, and his 8.4 points per game is second to only Florida State place kicker Roberto Aguayo.
If Williams played for a better team he’d likely be in the Heisman Trophy conversation, right up there with Winston and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. But the Eagles (6-4, 3-3 ACC) are bowl-eligible in Coach Steve Addazio’s debut season, and for that they can thank Williams.
“There’s no secret to what we’ve got to do this coming week against Boston College,” Coach Randy Edsall said Tuesday at the very start of his weekly news conference. “And that’s stop the run, stop Andre Williams, who’s just an outstanding player. He’s got very good speed, very powerful, explosive.”
Given that Williams has been held to less than 100 yards just twice this season and has bludgeoned defenses for 634 yards over the past two games, becoming the 19th Division I player to reach 2,000 rushing yards seems entirely feasible.
Edsall knows plenty about this milestone. He coached the last player to do so, Connecticut running back Donald Brown, whose 2,083 yards in 2008 ranks 12th all-time.
“You have to have a good offensive line and you have to stay healthy,” Edsall said. “That’s the biggest thing is staying healthy. He’s carried it 43 times last week? He’s running as strong at the end of the game as well as the beginning of the game. He’s a very good back, he’s got the ability to bend and he’ll run you over.
“You’re not going to arm-tackle this guy now. You got to put your shoulder into him, you’ve got to run your feet, you’ve got to get more than one person there. He’s very impressive on tape. He’s having a heck of a year, and should be mentioned for all the awards that are out there.”
Maryland’s defense delivered its best performance since ACC play began against the Hokies, holding Virginia Tech to just 54 rushing yards on 38 carries and clinching bowl eligibility in the process. But Williams presents an entirely different monster. He is a rhinoceros in shoulder pads, capable of bulldozing straight through potential tacklers and planting them flat on their backs.
“He’s a big, strong, powerful back,” defensive back A.J. Hendy said. “We’re going to get a large dose of him Saturday. He’s putting up crazy numbers. He’s putting up video game-type numbers. That’s definitely going to draw our attention when we see those types of things.”
Stacking the box might be Maryland’s best option, but Stewart also musts account for quarterback Chase Rettig, who ranks fifth in the ACC in passing efficiency, and wide receiver Alex Amidon, who’s fourth in the conference with 6.2 receptions per game. Rettig, a fifth-year senior, has played under five offensive coordinators during his college career.
“I always thought Chase was a good quarterback,” Stewart said. “We’re looking at a guy who’s had a different coordinator every year. That poor guy, man, he can’t get a system down. He’s doing a great job adjusting to whoever’s telling him what the play is to run. I think he’s a good talent, I think he’s got a great arm, I think he does a good job escaping. He must be a smart kid, because he’s gone through three or four different coordinators and he’s still the starter.”
During Wednesday’s ACC coaches’ teleconference, Edsall was asked which defensive player would “be key” to stopping Williams. “All 11 guys will be key,” Edsall responded, and for once the answer didn’t seem trite. Stopping the senior has, at times, taken an entire army of tacklers, particularly as the game wears on.
“I think he wears you out,” Stewart said. “You look at tape, you see the same guys tackling him early as the same guys missing and getting run over late. I think he gets stronger, and you get tired of hitting a big body.”