The Terrapins football team was coming off of a 63-point loss, playing in the rain with a backup quarterback and lost the turnover battle Saturday. All that seems to be a recipe for disaster, but the Terps found a way to pull out a gritty 27-26 victory in their last game with Virginia as ACC rivals. Here are the takeaways:
1) CALEB'S DAY
Quarterback Caleb Rowe, making his second career start in replace of the injured starter C.J. Brown (concussion), made several mistakes Saturday. But he made enough plays — and made them at the right time — to have a career-defining game.
His up-and-down day was epitomized in a quick sequence. On first down with about seven minutes to play and the team trailing 26-20, Rowe made an errant pitch to running back Brandon Ross that resulted in an 11-yard loss. But two plays later, he responded by rifling a 47-yard strike that Deon Long hauled in on third-and-21 to set up the game-winning touchdown.
Rowe finished 18-of-34 for 332 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, which is a pretty spectacular line, considering it was his first start in almost a year. He needed some luck to get there — several ill-advised passes were tipped and then caught by Terps receivers — but nonetheless, Rowe’s play was key in the Terps victory.
“He played well enough for us to win tonight,” coach Randy Edsall said, “which is the bottom line.”
The Terps biggest passing play came on a screen to running back Brandon Ross, in which Rowe simply dumped the ball off. Another large gain in the first half came when Rowe badly underthrew wide receiver Deon Long down the middle of the field, but the ball was tipped and landed in the arms of fellow Terp receiver Stefon Diggs for 39 yards.
But Rowe also made some huge plays that weren’t a result of good breaks. He had a 19-yard run to pick up a third and long in the third quarter and his game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Dave Stinebaugh was a terrific, improvised throw.
He did lose one fumble, but was able to avoid throwing an interception, though a Virginia defender did let one ball slip right through his hands. Either way, Rowe did a good enough job protecting the pigskin and moving the football for the Terps to leave Byrd Stadium with a win.
“Once I got settled in I made a few good plays here and there and likely our team came out with the victory,” Rowe said. “Our team played great and kind of rallied around me.”
Brown’s status moving forward is uncertain, but Rowe proved Saturday that the Terps offense could be productive even without the starter under center.
2) BEND BUT DON'T BREAK
The Terps defense took on the same narrative as Rowe. The unit wasn’t perfect, but timely plays and an ability to hold the Cavaliers to field goals in the red zone made the difference.
Inside linebacker L.A. Goree made 15 tackles and safety Anthony Nixon had 12 to the lead the Terps, but the team got contributions from all around.
With less than eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, inside linebacker Cole Farrand shot a gap too bring down Virginia running back Kevin Parks behind the line-of-scrimmage on third and 1 at the Terps 8-yard line.
Virginia kicked a field goal on the next play, but that put them up by only six. Farrand’s play, in fact, kept the Terps within one possession and set the stage for the ensuing touchdown drive that featured Long’s catch and Rowe’s touchdown pass.
It was one of four times the Terps forced a field goal in the red zone.
“As long as the ball hasn’t crossed the goal line, you’ve got a chance,” Edsall said. “And that’s the mentality that we’re trying to instill in our games all the time.”
The group, though, struggled defending Virginia tight end Jake McGee, who worked the middle of the field and caught eight balls For 114 yards. Outside linebacker Matt Robinson, a converted safety, would likely have covered McGee if he wasn’t out with a shoulder injury.
Alex Twine replaced Robinson in the lineup and was one of the several guys that allowed McGee to have a big day. Safety A.J. Hendy was also covering McGee at times.
Still, the Terps held Virginia to four field goals, and that helped ensure the victory.
The performance came without one of there best pass-rushers in outside linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, who left the field in the first quarter with an apparent foot injury and did not return.
But like Rowe, the defense made key plays to salvage its performance.
The Terps were dominating the turnover battle during their 4-0 start to the season. Saturday, they lost the turnover battle, 3-0, and it nearly cost them a defeat in a vital conference game.
They need to fix that. Two of the Terps turnovers came via the punt return team, and both of those miscues led to Cavaliers points.
The team also could benefit from created turnovers. The Terps’ eight interceptions were key to a string of success at the beginning of the season, but the last two weeks they haven’t had a single one. Against the ACC’s top competition — and the Terps play No. 3 Clemson in two weeks — they’ll need to create more big plays than they have in the past two games to have a chance.
Overall, though, the Terps can take solace in the fact that the pulled out a win despite coughing it up three times. Edsall surely didn’t want to do it that way, but the team’s victory shows that it can overcome some miscues.
4) WHAT IT MEANS
The Terps are now 5-1 and have won more games than they did in either of Edsall’s first two years in College Park. Not to mention, the team sits one win from earning bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
But maybe more importantly, the Terps got things turned around after a 63-0 loss at No. 6 Florida State. It’d be easy for the group to enter a downward spiral after a loss like that. Saturday, the Terps avoid that.
“It was a good confidence building game, rebounding game especially after last week,” Ross said. “This is just something we could build off of.”
In a big game when they didn’t play their best, the Terps made the crucial plays to get a win. That bodes well for the team and the attitude of the program moving forward.