Postgame: Backup quarterbacks Devin Burns and Caleb Rowe nearly played heroes

October 20, 2012

Devin Burns, a converted wide receiver forced into duty after Perry Hills injured his knee, scores on a two-yard run in the third quarter.  (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

At halftime, the Maryland football team rallied around Devin Burns, a cool customer who transitioned from wide receiver to quarterback this offseason because playing backup was better for the team. But with Perry Hills relegated to the back of a cart, wincing in pain at his injured left knee, the Terrapins came to their new quarterback and simply told him to  take advantage of the opportunity against North Carolina State.

Burns, a former honorable mention all-state quarterback at Carver (Ga.) High School, never thought his playing time would unfold in such a heart-pounding manner. Hills was the starter after C.J. Brown tore his ACL during a non-contact preseason workout. Burns was the backup, and that was that. Maybe he would see action as a change-of-pace quarterback, like he did against Virginia, or to spell Hills, like at West Virginia.

That Maryland rushed for a season-high 206 yards Saturday against the Wolfpack might get lost in heartbreak after Brad Craddock clanged a 33-yarder off the left post with two seconds left to seal a 20-18 loss. But Burns perfectly executing the read option, and pumped life into the crowd of 40,217 at Byrd Stadium that held it scollective breath when Hills rode away.

Hills’s injury was gruesome. The Terps were driving just before halftime when he fired a pass off his back foot that was picked off by N.C. State cornerback David Amerson. All Hills wanted to do was make a play, to atone for his seventh interception of the season. Instead, he planted at the 40-yard line, his left leg buckling before linebacker Rockey Dowdy delivered the finishing blow, a brutal block in the back that bent Hills’s knee backwards.

Coach Randy Edsall withheld comment until an MRI exam is taken. The early returns don’t look good. The injury appeared to be severe when watched on replay, and another season-ending knee injury for another Maryland quarterback is a possibility.

As for next week, when a trip to slumping Boston College looms, Burns and Caleb Rowe could rotate in a two-quarterback system, spelling each other as situations permit. Rowe is the better passer, but Burns put on an unexpected show.

“Obviously I wasn’t planning on coming on in this situation,” Burns said. “I guess it turned out to work out in my favor, that I came back to quarterback. With coach’s helping and preparing I was ready to go into the game.”

Time and again, the sophomore brought the Terps back from the brink, engineering two touchdown drives to start the second half and finishing with 97 total yards, including a two-yard touchdown on a naked bootleg when he effortlessly walked into the end zone.

“With a running quarterback, you don’t blitz as often,” Stefon Diggs said. “I think it slows the pace of the game down, without them blitzing as much. When you’re not a mobile quarterback they send the blitz a lot. We upped the tempo on offense, tried to catch them off guard and tried to capitalize on that. Devin came into his own and did a great job.” 

Sure, the Wolfpack had no tape on Burns. At most, they schemed for Hills, a steady quarterback who looked to Maryland’s arsenal of electric receivers for big-play potential. How could N.C. State have predicted that running back Wes Brown would run for 121 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown, when Maryland had negative ground yardage against the Cavaliers? The worst thing N.C. State did, Coach Tom O’Brien said after the game, was knock Hills out of the game.

Burns rammed the option down the Wolfpack’s throat in the second half, including a 23-yard rush, Maryland’s longest run of the season. Lanes opened up for Brown, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Marcus Leak found room to run on screen passes. A patchwork offensive line, one that allowed five first-half sacks, suddenly began plowing holes like a demolition crew against the N.C. State front seven.

“We’ve been stressing that we need to get the run game going, try to open up the pass game, and vice versa,” Burns said. “I think they did a great job, and I just came in and did what I could for the team.”

It turned into a two-man effort when Rowe came on late in the fourth quarter. Earlier in the season the Terps had installed an emergency plan: If something happened to Hills, Burns would assume full quarterbacking duties until a two-minute drill situation. Then Rowe, a 6-foot-2 South Carolina native, would take over.

No way the Wolfpack figured they’d see three quarterbacks on Saturday afternoon. On Rowe’s first pass, he found Kevin Dorsey on the far sideline for a 17-yard reception. Flushed out of the pocket from the Maryland 42-yard line, Rowe scampered out of bounds, an 11-yard gain. Nigel King turned a short gain into 33 yards, his first career reception, before Rowe downed the ball in the middle of the field to set up Craddock’s attempt.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Rowe said. “Coach always preaches to be prepared for whenever your number is called. I worked hard in practice and today I was ready to play. They were telling me through my headset to get ready to play.”

Rowe nearly directed the game-winning drive seconds after taking his first collegiate snap. Burns nearly played hero, just weeks after he entered training camp as a wide receiver. Both will likely have their numbers called next week against Boston College, and for the rest of the season, if Hills indeed has played the last snap of his freshman year.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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