The momentum switch was palpable, if you believe in that sort of thing. Virginia had stormed back from a 17-3 halftime deficit, the fans who remained at Scott Stadium rising with every yard gained.
Quarterback Philip Sims launched a laser off one foot from 20 yards out, finding a sliding E.J. Scott in the end zone for a touchdown that chopped Maryland’s lead to 17-10. A 22-yard Ian Frye field goal brought it to 17-13. An old Terrapins team, say the one that ranked among the nation’s worst defenses in 2011, might have folded. But this is a new-look Maryland unit, a hungry and determined bunch of veteran defenders, working enthusiastically in a new scheme, once again refusing to break in Saturday’s 27-20 win.
Maryland has outscored opponents by 20 points the fourth quarter this season. Virginia only got a 24-yard touchdown pass from Michael Rocco to Jake McGee on Saturday. Otherwise, they picked up a quick first down then stalled early in the period. On their next drive, Darin Drakeford clocked Sims from behind mid-throw, and A.J. Francis sprung onto the fumble.
“We’re going to keep fighting,” said Drakeford, who tied Joe Vellano with a team-high two sacks. “That’s what teams do. As a defense, our main goal is to get off the field. We knew the offense would do what they needed to do.”
With Rocco, whom Maryland Coach Randy Edsall called Virginia’s best “pure passer,” subbing in for Sims, the Cavaliers marched 81 yards, once again making it a one-possession game. But when Virginia took over near midfield and 2:02 left on the clock, Maryland’s two-minute defense kicked into high gear.
“I feel like our confidence is just increasing more and more every game,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said. “Even in practice, you can see it. The defense and the offense, we’re just competing. It helps that we’ve been in these late-game situations over and over again. When we play teams and it’s close, I feel like we’ll always have the advantage.”
Rocco overthrew Khalek Shepard on first down. Pressured out of the pocket, he threw one away on second down. On third down, Isaac Goins broke up a Scott-bound laser. After a delay-of-game penalty, Rocco again got flushed out. On the run, he threw a prayer off his back heels, a lame duck that fluttered harmlessly to the ground.
It was not the boisterous finish Maryland enjoyed last weekend against Wake Forest. There were no dramatic sacks, no pilfered Pain Train dances or goal-line stands. Just incomplete passes, ultimately amounting to the same, familiar result.
“We do two-minute drills and a lot of guys take a lot of pride in those last two minutes, so we were just stepping it up,” Vellano said. “We try to prevent easy reads and hold them to their line.”
The Cavaliers threw shifts and motions at the Terps’ defense, powering behind a forest-like offensive line to 168 rushing yards, the most Maryland has allowed in one game this season. Kevin Parks had 17 carries for 129 yards, a 7.6 yards-per-carry average that included a 26-yard burst. But Virginia was just 7 of 20 on third down.
“We made the plays when we had to,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “That’s all I want out of our guys. They can move the ball as much as they want between the 20s. But our tight red zone defense was outstanding today. We block a field goal, hold them to two field goals, that’s something I’m really proud of in terms of how our defense hung in there and got it done.”
That field goal block came early the second quarter, when a 38-yard Nathan Renfro punt and a 36-yard pass from Sims to fullback Zachary Swanson put the Cavaliers at the Maryland 22-yard line. Three straight rushes netted eight yards, and Virginia sent Drew Jarrett out for the 31-yard try.
Stepping to the ball, Jarrett struck a low-liner toward the uprights. Maryland’s line barely pushed, conceding the early attempt. Only Francis stuck his hand up. But Jarrett’s kick found the senior’s outstretched palm, and it bounded out the end zone.
“The Virginia offense had a lot of runs and combinations, they made some plays on us that were tough but we just had to step it up in the red zone, and we blocked that field goal which gave us great momentum,” Vellano said.
Momentum. Something the Terps defense owns in the fourth quarter.