Maryland’s young running backs shine in win over Buffalo

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The Maryland Terrapins entered the season with high expectations for their dynamic offense, but the team started the opener with a useful, not spectacular, performance against Buffalo. Then Roman Hemby found an opening: a hole created by his offensive line and the 70 yards of turf in front of him.

“I only saw daylight, really,” said Heimby, a red-shirt freshman who chased after him.

That touchdown provided a spark in a sometimes lackluster 31-10 win over the Bulls and delivered the young running back’s best performance of his career, helping to quell concerns about his position group.

The Terrapins had a shaky run last season as they relied mostly on the arms of quarterback Tolia Tagovaloya. This year’s offense — quarterback consistency, explosive receivers and a veteran offensive line — goes into the 2022 campaign, with a group of mostly unproven running backs the team’s most important in this regard question. Tagovailoa produced no fireworks during Saturday’s passing game at College Park. The third-year starting quarterback recorded 290 passing yards but also had a few turnovers, including an interception when Buffalo disguised a screen and overturned a receiver.

The engine of Maryland’s high-intensity offense is its seasoned lines

Hemby jumped into the air with his teammates to celebrate his second touchdown of the afternoon, proving that he can be a resounding answer — for a Maryland season that requires explosive energy and a solid rushing offense.

Hemby was 114 yards from the ground and had its brightest day in the Terps. His big touchdown after the start of the second half marked Terp’s longest run since 2019. Only five other Maryland players have rushed for at least 100 yards in a game since coach Michael Locksley took over the program in 2019, and Hemby has a lot of his career still far ahead.

Hemby announced his arrival as the new starter for the Terps with a 33-yard touchdown on Maryland’s first possession. He sprinted down a hole in the offensive line, dodged a defender, and sprinted into the end zone — an impressive run until his quick second score grabbed the headlines.

“A lot of people can get to level two,” Hembey said. “A lot of guys can shine and be explosive. But who can ring the bell? Who can take home? As a young player and trying to be a veteran at the same time, I have to be accountable to myself, so whenever the game calls for it When I make them, I do everything I can to make them.”

Hemby was soon joined by fellow running back Antwain Littleton II. On his first dribble of the season, the 235-pound redshirt freshman had a 21-yard advantage down the middle — taking advantage of Mosiah Nasili-Kite’s third hit and Tarheeb Still’s 17. The punt returned, which gave Terps an excellent position on the pitch. Littleton missed the goal line, but in the ensuing game he slid the ball into the end zone.

Early in the fourth quarter — initially adjudicated for a touchdown and called back to the one-yard line after Corey Dydges’ catch — Littleton showed his strength again, scoring again. Pushed by Littleton and Hemby, the Terps carried 5.7 yards per carry.

“You achieved what you emphasized,” Locksley said. “And we put a lot of emphasis on our ability to manage football.”

Loxley wants to see more consistency in the running game, noting how averages are skewed by explosive runs. He knew his team needed more chances: The Terps played 61 games with the Bulls, while Locksley liked to watch about 80. Maryland needed a third dip above 4 of 13 to maintain the drive. Hemby’s great performance was only seven. Littleton has only six.

Tagovailoa, even in an up-and-down game, completed 24 of 34 passes and led the offense for 446 yards. Rakim Jarrett opened what could be a breakthrough campaign with a 110-yard, six-reception performance. Dontay Demus Jr. and Jeshaun Jones have made much-anticipated returns from serious knee injuries, but Locksley said their appearances are still limited to about half their normal range.

“After you get an interception, all the tension goes away,” said Demus, who had three catches for 23 yards. “It feels good to be able to say, ‘I’m back,’ I can go through the past.”

Jones finished the day with 70 yards on four catches. He has only appeared in 10 games since his inaugural season in 2018 and has since torn his ACL twice. Now in his fifth year at College Park, perpetually fighting for minutes in a crowded wide receiver room, he has a chance to shine.

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Maryland’s defense kept Buffalo scoreless until Alger Henderson grabbed a rushing touchdown late in the second quarter, and the Tepps were just 3.7 yards per game. Cornerback Jakorian Bennett had a terrific run with five pass drives — “one of which required an interception for a touchdown,” Locksley said — and five tackles. The improvement in Maryland’s defense, and how it plays against tougher opponents, will determine how far this team can go as it aims to finish 7-6 in 2021, but Loxley has a hard time with the team. Satisfied with his performance in the opener.

The Terps will play in Charlotte next weekend, then host SMU on September 17, before starting the Big Ten.

The Bulls missed a 41-yard field goal in the first quarter, and Maryland made its fourth stop within the 20-yard line in the second, helping the Terps keep their distance until Hemby released a Maryland shot. The team improved to a 24-7 lead.

The opener provided a handful of Terps with various introductions: Jaishawn Barham, a touted freshman linebacker from St. Francis College in Baltimore, got a starter in his college debut, while freshman Octavian Smith Jr. was a pick. Baller, he returned 41 yards on a late tee. Chad Ryland, a transfer from Eastern Michigan, hit a 45-yard field goal and provided reasons to believe Maryland played the game. Then there’s the young running backs, who outdid numerous veterans as the highlight of the day.

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