A win? Sure.
Pretty? No way.
Maryland narrowly escaped disaster Saturday afternoon in squeaking out a 7-6 win over FCS visitor William & Mary. Three interceptions. One lost fumble. One missed 25-yard field goal attempt. Plenty of empty Byrd Stadium seats. Not exactly the recipe for a blowout.
Coach Randy Edsall opened his postgame news conference by thanking the crowd that stuck around, the one that saw Justus Pickett plunge in from six yards out with 9:52 left in the game, erasing a 6-0 deficit that had existed since the Tribe turned two first-quarter turnovers into field goals.
“They were there to the bitter end,” Edsall said.
For some time, the script was all too familiar for a Terps team that finished 2-10 last season. The offseason quickly went from upbeat to injury-filled, but early-season FCS opponents are supposed to be a bridge into the grueling ACC slate. Not so with the Tribe. Not so with true freshman Perry Hills throwing three interceptions that had the Terps greeted with boos as they jogged to the locker room at halftime.
“When I was out there, I wasn’t really nervous,” said Hills, who finished 16 of 24 for 145 yards. “Just a couple of silly mistakes that I shouldn’t have mad.e That won’t happen again.”
Only a strong defensive effort kept the Terps in this one, while the offense failed to put together a scoring drive before suddenly everything clicked when it really mattered.
Starting at their 31-yard line, the Terps marched to the Tribe 36. True freshman Albert Reid, who got the start but gave way to Pickett in the second half after a first-quarter fumble, strung together consecutive five-yard rushes. Then, on third and eight, Hills found Kevin Dorsey on a screen. Dorsey made a man miss, got a huge downfield block from Bennett Fulper and scampered for 22 yards. After an eight-yard Hills rush, Pickett went nearly untouched into the end zone.
“In the first quarter, [we] wanted to come out and explode early, kind of get the momentum early and try to get drives going,” Dorsey said. “We had turnovers and fumbles and everything, and it kind of gets you down a little bit. Seeing the guys being able to keep their heads up and push through — it wasn’t a pretty one, but at the end of the day, it’s still a win.”
That seemed to be the postgame theme: ugly wins are better than any loss. Especially in the season opener. Especially at home against an FCS program.
“I think this kind of game was probably better for us than a blowout,” Edsall said. “I think we learn a lot more from ourselves, going through what we went through today than if you have a game that’s a blowout.”
On William & Mary’s final drive, with the clock ticking on fourth down, Terps cornerback Jeremiah Johnson and linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield both blitzed from the strong side. Hartsfield got picked up by the Tribe’s running back, but Johnson sprung free, sacked backup quarterback Raphael Ortiz for a 19-yard loss and forced the game-clinching fumble that Hartsfield picked up with 1:11 left.
After the game, Edsall was asked about what he wanted Terps fans to know about his team that was perhaps absent Saturday. Rather than speak to, for instance, the future emergence of hidden talent, Edsall mentioned group cohesion.
“I think it’s a team that’s united. It’s a team that’s going to go out there and work hard each and every day, and they’re going to give it their best effort every time.
“Be patient with them. They’re going to get better. And they’re working. They need the support, and they really appreciate the support. There are a lot of good things that happened today. A lot of things that didn’t go the way we wanted them too. When I came out and saw the whole bottom bowl filled, the noise level, they stayed with us, that was very impressive for me.”
Some postgame notes to chew on as you power through Labor Day weekend . . .
● The team informed punter Nathan Renfro that he would be starting just before Friday’s walk-through at the team hotel. Renfro, a redshirt freshman, delivered. He averaged 53 yards on four punts, including a long of 60 yards, and pinned the Tribe at their 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
“Here’s a guy that’s been around, and we were going to go with him. Boy he paid off in a big way,” Edsall said. ”Now he’s got to understand, that’s expected every week.”
Renfro won the job over freshman Brad Craddock, who hit the extra point but missed a 25-yard chip shot earlier in the game.
●Edsall said the Terps planned for freshman phenom Stefon Diggs to have around 10 touches in his first collegiate game. Diggs, a Good Counsel product and Post All-Met Player of the Year, finished with eight. He had three punt returns for 50 yards, two carries for three yards, and three receptions for 30 yards.
●Justifiably so, Edsall had high praise for defensive lineman Joe Vellano, who had 11 tackles (three solo) and tied for a team-high two tackles for a loss. Oh, and he had an interception. So he leads the Terps in that category, too.
“The guy just loves to complete, loves to play,” Edsall said. “He’s going to make plays. He’s a leader out there. Very pleased with Joe. He got a cut on his eye, got that butterflied up, went out there, continued to play.
“Joe Vellano is a football player that every coach loves, because he gives it to you all the time. He’s a coach on the field. He can come off the field, tell you exactly what’s going on, some things that can work and all that.”
● Really, the lone negative on the defense was cornerback Dexter McDougle. The junior was flagged for three pass interference calls, the first of which led to the Tribe’s first field goal. He also got burned over the top on more than one occasion. Had William & Mary not consistently overthrown their receivers deep, this game might have turned out differently.
“Today I think I had some good plays out there, but ultimately I had some fundamental errors, “McDougle said. “Sometimes I’m not paying attention to my keys, trying to make a big play, when I should just do my job. With that, the defense kept fighting, and we ended up getting the win. That’s all that really matters.”