When the Texas Longhorns face off against the Maryland Terrapins on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, one of the defining battles will feature strength on strength — the Maryland running game against the Texas defensive line.
Despite a lack of ideal depth, head coach Tom Herman called the Longhorns defensive line one of the team’s strengths on Monday, led by team captain Poona Ford. The senior nose tackle is the hardest-practicing player on the team, according to his head coach, and is one of the best run stoppers in the country.
And Ford and his counterparts in the trenches will face a significant challenge in going against a Terrapins offense that features two productive running backs and a starting quarterback whose best attribute is running ability.
“On offense, the Pigrome kid is who they pen as their starter at quarterback, that's a pretty big added dimension on that side of the ball,” Herman said. “They've already shown themselves to be a really good running offense in terms of Harrison and Johnson in the backfield. I think they averaged over 200 yards rushing a game last year. Now you add a dynamic runner at quarterback, and that is going to cause you fits.”
Even with a pocket passer in Perry Hills taking the majority of reps at quarterback in 2016, Maryland did indeed average nearly 200 rushing yards per game, ranking No. 13 in rushing S&P+.
Junior Ty Johnson and sophomore Lorenzo Harrison III carried the load in the running game last season — Johnson ran for 1,004 yards and six touchdowns on 9.1 yards per carry, while Harrison added 633 yards and five touchdowns on 7.2 yards per carry.
Neither one is a power runner, especially, but Johnson is a sturdy 208 pounds and is remarkably difficult to bring down when opponents try to tackle him up around his shoulders. He’s also fast enough to take the edge against linebackers and elusive enough to make defensive backs miss in the open field.
At 5’8, Harrison lacks the long speed of Johnson, but is also difficult to bring down because of his low center of gravity. And even though he won’t be able to run away from the Texas defense, Harrison was still able to post three runs of more than 40 yards as a freshman, including a 44-yarder against Penn State.
After all the tackling issues the ‘Horns have had in the last several years, Johnson and Harrison will provide a significant challenge for coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense — by Saturday afternoon, it should be apparent whether Texas is more sound in that critical area.
As for sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome, the team’s new starting quarterback, he was the team’s third-leading rusher last season and is at his best as a runner, in part because his (generous) listed height of 5’11 can make it difficult for him to operate from the pocket.
In high school, Pigrome ran a 4.73 40-yard dash, a 4.41 shuttle, and posted a 31-inch vertical leap — relatively average athleticism. However, he was dangerous as a freshman when he was able to find vertical seams on read-option plays and on the perimeter in scramble situations, so he seems like a player whose athleticism plays better in pads than it did in shorts.
In the option game, Maryland used Pigrome effectively on the counter read play with two pulling offensive linemen in front of him. With the speed of Johnson and Harrison on the outside, defenses had some difficulties stopping it consistently.
When playing against running quarterbacks, the key for the defensive line is to maintain lane integrity when rushing the passers, and that will be the case on Saturday. If Texas has issues in that area, junior linebacker Malik Jefferson was most effective last season when deployed as a spy on former Texas Tech quarterback Pat Mahomes, so don’t be surprised if he reprises that role on Saturday.
So Herman has legitimate cause for concern with the Maryland running game, especially with four starters returning along the offensive line.
From the perspective of the Terrapins, however, the bigger question is whether DJ Durkin’s team can perform well against a quality opponent — Maryland went 0-5 against top-50 S&P+ teams in 2016 and averaged only 4.1 yards per play.
Johnson’s performances were a microcosm of the team’s overall plays, as he averaged only 2.6 yards per carry against those opponents and 12.1 yards per carry against the poor competition that Maryland faced.
Overall, the Terrapins ranked No. 113 in stuff rate and No. 125 in power success rate, so this was a boom-or-bust team in addition to the lack of success against quality opponents. As a result, Maryland allowed 108 tackles for loss last season, which tied for 126th in the country.
If the defensive line can win some individual battles and the linebackers have improved in getting off blocks, Texas has a chance to make Maryland one-dimensional and put Pigrome in the situations that he most wants to avoid — third and long.