During Maryland's first win of the year, Mario Merrills became a sudden rushing star; in his first career start, the running back gained a career-high 149 yards. During the Terps' second win, another running back -- Keon Lattimore -- emerged as the offensive hero, with a career-high 76 rushing yards and his first touchdown.
Saturday brought Maryland's third victory -- a 45-33 decision over rival Virginia -- and a third running back took his turn before the cameras and microphones to talk about a landmark day. Sophomore Lance Ball scored the first two touchdowns of his career Saturday and ran for 163 yards -- the most by a Maryland back since November 2003 -- and, naturally, a career high.
As the three running backs battled each other for playing time in the preseason, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen promised that all three would be used this year, and the past two weeks have borne him out. Ball was consistently effective in a shotgun option play run out of a passing formation, and he had 17 carries, the most on the team.
"He made some great cuts, a couple of really key runs," Friedgen said. "He was the hot back."
Lattimore was listed as the starter for the first time in his career, but because of the personnel package Ball was on the field for Maryland's first offensive play. Lattimore gained just 46 yards on 16 carries, but he also scored twice -- on a nine-yard play in the second quarter in which he sped around the Virginia defense, and on a one-yard plunge late in the fourth quarter in which he barreled into the heart of that defense.
Merrills, who was the primary back through three weeks, played only on special teams.
Yesterday, Friedgen said the coaching staff would again try to identify a hot back for Saturday's game at Temple, and that Merrills would still have a chance to get back into the rotation. Friedgen said the ongoing competition for playing time would spur his backs on the practice field, with playing time determined there every week.
"I'm comfortable doing that, I don't have a problem with that," he said. "That's what I'm hoping to build here, enough depth that you have to practice well to get in the game. The better you practice, the better your chances of getting in the game. And when you get in the game, we'll see how you do."
Ball played well enough on Saturday that the coaching staff considered nominating him for ACC honors, but ultimately threw their support behind wide receiver Danny Melendez, who also had a career day with nine catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. And Friedgen said the receiving corps -- primarily Melendez, Derrick Fenner and Jo Jo Walker, who each were on the field for more than 50 plays -- was a significant part of Maryland's best rushing performance in more than a year. The Terps ran for 250 yards on Saturday; their previous three games had produced 268 yards on the ground.
"Without question in my mind the best blocking we've had since I've been here for wide receivers," Friedgen said. "They had an exceptional game."
The running game also was helped by a shift in play-calling that Friedgen had hinted at last week; the pass was frequently used to set up the run instead of vice versa. Several of the Terps' best runs came out of passing formations, and the Cavaliers' defense often looked out of sorts.
"That's a result of our coaching staff really doing their homework and making good decisions," quarterback Sam Hollenbach said.
Said Friedgen: "We kept people guessing as to what we were doing. We kind of stayed ahead of the posse, so to speak."
Ball agreed, attributing his career day to the offensive package and saying there were several runs in which he was well past the line of scrimmage before he was touched.
"I was surprised I was untouched, but credit to the line," he said. "They opened up the holes. I just saw green and ran."