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Maryland’s young running backs shine in opening win over Buffalo

Maryland running back Roman Hemby (24) had 114 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a win over Buffalo on Saturday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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The Maryland Terrapins entered this season with lofty expectations for their dynamic offense, but the unit started the opener against Buffalo with a serviceable, not spectacular, showing. And then Roman Hemby found an opening: a gaping hole created by his offensive line and 70 yards of turf in front of him.

“I saw nothing but daylight really,” said Hemby, a redshirt freshman who sped past the defender futility chasing, first to his right and then from behind.

That touchdown offered a spark in an at times lackluster 31-10 win over the Bulls, and it fueled a career-best showing for the young running back that helped quell concerns about his position group.

The Terrapins had an inconsistent running game last season as they primarily leaned on the arm of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. This year’s offense — with stability at quarterback, explosive receivers and a veteran offensive line — entered the 2022 campaign with a group of mostly unproven running backs as the team’s most significant question on that side of the ball. Tagovailoa didn’t generate fireworks in the passing game Saturday in College Park. The third-year starting quarterback recorded 290 passing yards but also had a few miscues, including an interception when Buffalo disguised a coverage and he overthrew a receiver.

The engine of Maryland’s high-powered offense is its experienced line

Hemby, who leaped into the air with a teammate celebrating his second touchdown of the afternoon, proved he could be a resounding answer — for this game that needed a burst of energy and for the Maryland season that needs a reliable rushing attack.

With 114 yards on the ground, Hemby had the brightest day among the Terps. His big touchdown run just after the second half began was the longest rush by a Terp since 2019. Only five other Maryland players had rushed for at least 100 yards in a game since Coach Michael Locksley took over the program in 2019, and Hemby has much of his career still ahead.

Hemby announced his arrival as the Terps’ new starter with a 33-yard touchdown run on Maryland’s first offensive drive. He stormed through a hole in the offensive line, escaped a defender and scurried into the end zone — an impressive run until his speedy second score stole the headlines.

“A lot of people can get to the second level,” Hemby said. “A lot of people can make big runs, explosive plays. But who can ring the bell? Who can take it home? Being a young guy, trying to be a veteran at the same time, I’ve got to hold myself accountable, so whenever the plays are there for me to make, I try to do my best to make them.”

Fellow running back Antwain Littleton II quickly joined Hemby in the spotlight. On his first carry of the season, the 235-pound redshirt freshman powered up the middle for a 21-yard gain — capitalizing on Mosiah Nasili-Kite’s third-down sack and Tarheeb Still’s 17-yard punt return that handed the Terps excellent field position. Littleton fell short of the goal line, but on the next play, he punched the ball into the end zone.

Early in the fourth quarter — after Corey Dyches’s reception, initially ruled a touchdown, was called back to the 1-yard line — Littleton showcased his force again with another score. Fueled by Littleton and Hemby, the Terps mustered 5.7 yards per carry.

“You achieve what you emphasize,” Locksley said. “And we put a big emphasis on our ability to run the football.”

Locksley wants to see more consistency out of the running game, noting how that average is skewed by the explosive runs. He knows his team needs more opportunities: The Terps ran 61 plays against the Bulls, and Locksley likes to see roughly 80 plays. Maryland needs better than a 4-for-13 success rate on third down to sustain drives. Hemby had his standout day with only seven carries. Littleton had just six.

Tagovailoa, even amid an up-and-down showing, completed 24 of 34 passes and led an offense that generated 446 yards. Rakim Jarrett opened what could become a breakout campaign with a 110-yard, six-reception showing. Dontay Demus Jr. and Jeshaun Jones made their much-anticipated returns from major knee injuries, but Locksley said they’re still limited to about half the plays they normally would have.

“After you get tackled, all the jitters go away,” said Demus, who had three catches for 23 yards. “Being able to say, ‘I’m back,’ and I can go through the things I used to, felt good.”

Jones finished the day with 70 receiving yards on four catches. He had appeared in only 10 games since his debut season in 2018, tearing his ACL twice since then. Now in his fifth year in College Park, perpetually fighting for playing time in a crowded room of wide receivers, he has an opportunity to shine.

Svrluga: The Big Ten made Maryland rich. Only winning can make the Terps relevant.

Maryland’s defense held Buffalo scoreless until Al-Jay Henderson picked up a rushing touchdown late in the second quarter, and the Terps allowed just 3.7 yards per play. Cornerback Jakorian Bennett had a strong showing with five pass breakups — “one of those needed to be an interception for a touchdown,” Locksley said — and five tackles. The improvement of Maryland’s defense — and how it fares against tougher opposition — will determine how far this team can go as it aims to build off a 7-6 finish in 2021, but Locksley was pleased with the group’s showing in the opener.

The Terps play at Charlotte next weekend and then host SMU on Sept. 17 before beginning Big Ten play.

The Bulls missed a 41-yard field goal in the first quarter, and Maryland delivered a fourth-down stop inside the 20-yard line during the second quarter, which helped the Terps maintain their distance until Hemby unleashed the long score that lifted Maryland to a 24-7 lead.

The opener served as an introduction of sorts for a handful Terps: Linebacker Jaishawn Barham, a highly touted freshman from St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, earned a start in his college debut, and fellow freshman Octavian Smith Jr., a wide receiver, returned a late kickoff 41 yards. Chad Ryland, a transfer from Eastern Michigan, made a 45-yard field goal and provided reason to believe in Maryland’s kicking game. And then there’s the pair of young running backs, who rose above the slew of veterans to become the highlight of the day.