Opportunistic is a word we’ve used often to describe this year’s Terps, largely because we’re still trying to figure out just how good they really are after nine games.
And there Maryland was again, only seconds away from an unlikely 20-18 victory at Sun Life Stadium over a Miami team that had thoroughly dominated the Terrapins in nearly every statistical category. It was setting up to be the biggest win in two years for a program trying to erase the memory of a 2-10 season a year ago. A defensive score, some favorable officiating, and two botched extra points by the Hurricanes appeared to be just enough for the Terps to steal a victory they really didn’t deserve.
Unlike their win against Navy on Labor Day, however, the Terps defense couldn’t make a play to seal it as Miami quarterback Stephen Morris threw a 35-yard touchdown strike to Leonard Hankerson with 37 seconds left, giving Miami a 26-20 victory and leaving the Terps (6-3, 3-2 ACC) wondering what had hit them.
While the loss does little to hurt Maryland’s goal of winning the Atlantic Division and playing in the ACC Championship game in Jacksonville (the Terps still control their own destiny, unlikely as it might be), you have to wonder about the effect it will have on the psyche of a team building momentum after a road victory at Boston College and a 62-14 drubbing of Wake Forest on Homecoming last week.
Saturday’s loss looked an awful lot like the excruciating losses from last season in which the Terps did just enough to lose, regardless of the competition. Don Brown’s defense was gashed for 504 yards despite two Alex Wujciak interceptions — one returned for a 60-yard interception. The Hurricanes (6-3, 4-2 ACC) beat them to the edge countless times on running plays, and when Terps defenders did manage to get to the spot, they couldn’t tackle the ball carrier anyway.
On the final Miami drive, defensive lineman Joe Vellano drew a roughing-the-passer penalty, giving the Hurricanes the ball at the 50-yard line and making the job of the freshman quarterback much easier. Four plays later, Hankerson slipped behind Dexter McDougle and Kenny Tate for the game-winning touchdown catch.
It was an ugly relapse for a group that had been allowing just 19.8 points per game, 26th in the nation.
The Terps offense did few favors for an exhausted defense, managing to hold the ball for only 22:41 as quarterback Danny O’Brien played his worst game of the season. The redshirt freshman was just 9 of 27 for 134 yards, throwing a touchdown against one interception. Arguably the biggest reason for the team’s turnaround, O’Brien uncharacteristically looked the part of a freshman Saturday as he was outplayed by the inexperienced — but highly-touted — Morris (a true freshman), who was playing for the injured Jacory Harris.
Maryland had a golden opportunity following Wujciak’s second interception that set up the offense inside the red zone late in the third quarter. Two plays later, O’Brien badly underthrew LaQuan Williams at the goal line as the pass was picked off by Miami’s Ray-Ray Armstrong.
On the Terps’ next drive after they had moved the ball to the Miami 6, O’Brien misfired on two attempts, forcing the offense to settle for a field goal to take a two-point lead.
It even looked for a moment like the Maryland offense would be the group to make the fatal mistake as the Terps were trying to retake the lead in the fourth quarter. O’Brien fumbled after being leveled by linebacker Ramon Buchanan. It was returned for an apparent touchdown by Marcus Robinson before a mysterious facemask penalty was called on the Hurricanes, negating the score and giving Maryland a first down and the go-ahead field goal in the fourth.
Truthfully, both teams did plenty to lose on Saturday — Miami committed 10 penalties for 100 yards — but the Terps simply didn’t make enough plays in a very winnable game over a banged-up, vulnerable Hurricanes team.
Ralph Friedgen spoke last week about his team only reaching the minimum when the Terps became bowl-eligible last week after earning their sixth victory. Time will reveal where Maryland ends up in terms of their bowl destination, but Saturday’s loss hurts with an always-interesting trip to Charlottesville looming next week, followed by home meetings with Florida State and North Carolina State to close out the regular season.
Neither Maryland nor Miami looked very deserving of a win, but the Terps let one slip through their fingers. Instead of being opportunistic as they had been for much of the year, their performance was more wasteful than anything.
Where they go from here will tell how much they’ve really grown as a team.