In his first three games this season, Lance Ball logged 20 carries, three receptions, 116 total yards and one season-rescuing play.
Notwithstanding that play -- a miraculous fourth-and-eight conversion that led to Maryland's opening-night win over Navy -- the Terps' running back committee was still in session through the season's first month, and Ball's role remained open for discussion. He was a third-down pass catcher, a solid blocker, the most likely candidate to join quarterback Sam Hollenbach in the backfield when Maryland used a shotgun formation.
As the Terps enter the crucial three-game stretch that will determine whether they qualify for a postseason bowl, beginning tomorrow at North Carolina, the committee has long been dissolved. Ball has 36 carries in the past two games; no other Maryland back has more than eight. He now plays in both passing downs and traditional running formations, lining up in shotgun sets and behind fullbacks. He's averaging 5.4 yards per carry, a figure that actually went up after consecutive games against Virginia Tech and Florida State. And despite his slow start, the 5-foot-9 sophomore ranks fifth in the ACC in rushing yards per game.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that when Lance takes over, we run the ball well," fullback Tim Cesa said. "Numbers don't lie. Tape doesn't lie. Every time he touches the ball, he's getting five yards a carry."
Maryland's coaches have acknowledged the obvious in recent weeks: The rotation touted earlier in the season, when Ball fought senior Mario Merrills and sophomore Keon Lattimore for playing time, no longer applies. Merrills fumbled on the first series against Florida State and touched the ball just once more. Lattimore was held out of the game because of a shoulder injury. And facing the ACC's third-ranked defense, Ball ran 21 times for 120 yards.
"I've said all along it's going to be a tailback-by-committee, three guys, unless at some point someone really starts to separate themselves," offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said. "And that's happened."
That Ball would be the player distancing himself from the competition, though, was slightly unexpected. He gained the fewest yards of the three during Maryland's spring exhibition, and when Coach Ralph Friedgen talked of Ball in preseason camp, it was usually to praise his pass-catching and blocking.
Those traits didn't develop by accident; older brother Lorenzo would end Lance's early-morning high school workouts with 25 or 30 pass routes, even though his Teaneck (N.J.) team rarely threw the ball.
"It's all about being a complete back," said Lorenzo Ball, who coached Teaneck's freshman team. "You have to know how to pass block, you have to know how to run, you have to be able to catch the ball."
A pass reception against the Midshipmen led to Ball's signature moment, in which he caught the ball short of a first down, deked an unobstructed defender, kept his knee inches off the ground and gained 20 yards. The night yielded about a dozen messages on Ball's cell phone. Linebacker David Holloway said it was "a little bit reminiscent of Barry Sanders." Ball's mother Betty, who spent $30 or $40 on newspapers the next morning, still shows an Internet clip of the play to students at her New Jersey school and said she has seen the catch-and-run 25 or 30 times.
Still, Ball, who lost about 20 pounds since last spring, didn't start to emerge as Maryland's featured back for another month, until he gained 163 yards in a win over Virginia. Since then, he has averaged 16 carries and more than 100 yards a game. He's the only Maryland back to consistently break tackles -- eight against Florida State -- and coaches said he seems to spot developing creases better than the other backs.
"That's where guys separate themselves, that have that sixth sense really to feel those things and see those things," Taaffe said. "And then with all that, confidence has come. Now he knows he can do it. He's not guessing whether he can do it, he's not hoping he can do it. Now he knows he can do it."
Terps Notes: Wide receiver Jo Jo Walker, whom Coach Ralph Friedgen said was questionable because of a leg injury earlier this week, will play against North Carolina.