The wide receiver released, so Dexter McDougle ran with him. The game was long over by this point, a 30-point lead already opened up by the Maryland football team during its season opener Saturday afternoon. Florida International, searching for answers to new questions, turned to its backup quarterback, who promptly uncorked a homing missile down the left sideline.
The Terrapins secondary intercepted just four passes last season as the team’s turnover margin ranked as the ACC’s second-worst, so even in the most inconsequential of moments McDougle wanted to start the year off right. As Panthers senior Jarius Williams broke downfield off the snap, turned and sprinted too. “He was running, running hard,” McDougle would later say. “I just matched up with him.”
E.J. Hilliard’s pass traveled 45 yards in the air on a tight spiral, but left it just short of Williams. Turning towards the ball, McDougle saw his opportunity. He jumped.
“He jumped up,” the senior said. “I think I just had the better leverage or something, got the best of him.”
But, in the split second McDougle needed to secure the interception, the fourth of his career and first since 2011, he brought the ball down and it popped off his knee, straight into the air. Falling to the ground, launched horizontally like he was back-flopping into a swimming pool, McDougle somehow managed to keep focus and re-grab the pass. He somersaulted backwards and hung on.
“I caught it, then it came out of my hands,” McDougle said. “And I was falling. It was falling in front of me too, like ‘catch me.’ I grabbed it, brought it in. It was crazy.”
Except McDougle’s catch might not even have been Byrd Stadium’s best this weekend. Early in the first half, Stefon Diggs casually imitated Michael Jordan’s famous soaring pose, snagging a one-handed pass behind his body to convert on third down. C.J. Brown was flushed from the pocket, so he fired an off-balance attempt that Diggs vacuumed in.
Diggs regularly makes the unbelievable seem impossibly easy, so this comes as little surprise. Last season alone, he returned two kickoffs of 99 yards or longer for touchdowns; he threw a touchdown pass in the finale at North Carolina; he right-place-right-timed a tipped pass against Connecticut and waltzed into the end zone; and he regularly made defenders hug themselves on missed tackles. But this was solid even for the sophomore standout. Seriously, look at that extension. Remember, that’s a midair pose.
So who’s was better?
“I’m going to give it to Dex,” Diggs said. “As a DB it’s harder to catch the ball anyways. They say DB’s a receiver who can’t catch. I think Dex did a great job. Last year, he had a couple chances to get the pick, and I’m just so happy he got one this year.”
Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart focused on turnover creation this offseason, something the Terps sorely lacked last season. Against FIU, not exactly the best benchmark, they created two: Alex Twine forced a fumble on Maryland’s first kickoff and McDougle’s interception.
As for the battle over best catch, McDougle was more political.
“I don’t know, I’ll let everyone else be the judge, ” he said, repeating himself. “I’ll let everyone else be the judge. I feel like we all made plays today. I’m just happy.”