When Sam Maldonado parks himself in front of the television to play a popular college football video game, which he does quite often, he always makes one adjustment.
Maldonado moves the game's substitution meter to precisely 50 percent, meaning the computerized characters that look and run like Maryland's two running backs, Maldonado and Josh Allen, earn equal playing time. Maldonado's version of reality TV mimics the decisions made by Maryland coaches so far this season in real games. Through four games, the senior Maldonado has 68 carries; the junior Allen has 67. The duo, complimentary off the field and complementary on it, has been called the one-two punch, option 1 and 1A, or, as Coach Ralph Friedgen said, "They're both starters."
The Terps' reliance on two running backs is indicative of the national trend emerging this season. The reasoning: Ease the physical burden on backs and keep defenses guessing with varying styles.
Although the focus has been on the Terps' erratic passing game, the running game has been effective. The Terps (3-1), who return to action Saturday at home against Georgia Tech, rank 19th nationally in rushing and third in the ACC.
Last year Maryland ranked 24th nationally, but its running back corps thinned as the year unfolded because of a season-ending knee injury to Maldonado and nagging injuries suffered by Bruce Perry.
The only similarity between Allen (311 yards) and Maldonado (373) is their statistics. Allen is a shifty back who, as Friedgen said, can "wiggle" through holes and by defenders. Maldonado, whose "Sammy the Bull" nickname is apropos, runs over people at 233 pounds.
Both acknowledge this much: Allen has more speed, Maldonado more power. So who has better moves?
"I believe I do," Allen said.
Without hesitation, Maldonado agreed, saying Allen has at least five effective maneuvers, including a spin move that, when combined with his 4.49 speed in the 40, makes him tough to wrap up.
On Nov. 13, Maldonado, out with his knee injury, watched the Maryland-Virginia game from a hotel room with his family. He remembered watching in awe as Allen used his speed to bounce outside for an 80-yard second-quarter touchdown run.
As for Maldonado, he simulated his one move last week to a reporter by jiggling his shoulders. He accompanies the move -- "a little side-step," he called it -- with a high leg kick that helps evade tacklers.
"He has great feet for someone who is considered a power back," Allen said. " He's outrun a few people this year."
Maldonado, who transferred from Ohio State in 2002, is happy he's healthy and playing. Friedgen, who hails from Maldonado's home town of Harrison, N.Y., had heard stories about Maldonado's wild demeanor in high school. But Friedgen said Maldonado has matured, particularly after a difficult 2003 season.
Maldonado was suspended last season for breaking a team rule and missed the final four games of the year after undergoing knee surgery.
In Maldonado's absence, Allen thrived, racking up 257 yards against Virginia -- the third-best single-game rushing effort in school history -- and 144 the following week at North Carolina State.
Allen is at Maryland in part because Friedgen was afraid the Eleanor Roosevelt High product would attend Georgia Tech and eventually burn Maryland had the Terps not offered a scholarship. Maryland had an abundance of backs when Allen was recruited, but he was expected to be the featured one entering 2004.
Allen admittedly hasn't performed up to his expectations the past three games because of what he described as a sprain in his shoulder. Allen has had as many as 18 carries only once the past three games and has not registered 100 yards since the season opener against Northern Illinois.
"The pain was tremendous, but it was more a mental thing," said Allen, adding that he now is 100 percent. "Not having any contact the whole week and having to go out and be aggressive again in the game, I feel like that helped me a little bit. I know how to deal with that now, but at the time I didn't.
"I was very frustrated and felt like I wasn't playing as well as I could have been. I've been injured before and had to play with pain. I felt like I didn't do as good of a job as I've had in the past. I didn't feel like I did the job my team needed me to do."
Allen said he and Maldonado keep pressure on each other so both can improve throughout the season. "Neither of us is being greedy," Maldonado said. "We just want to go out and produce for the team."