Caleb Rowe looked downfield as the pass sailed into double coverage, nearly intercepted had wide receiver Nigel King not swatted it down. He watched the football flutter in midair and harmlessly tumble away, as Florida State’s defensive backs stomped around and lamented a lost takeaway. Then, as Rowe’s head turned to the backfield, a voice crackled through his headset, telling him to ditch the baseball cap and start throwing.
“Coach always preaches being ready to play,” Rowe said. “Mentally, every week, I make myself ready to play. I was ready to go. Even in the bye week I got a few more reps at the ones. I was ready to go.”
As starting quarterback C.J. Brown lay dazed on the ground, crushed by a helmet-to-sternum hit that left him concussed and out for the game, Rowe began to warm up behind his teammates, who watched on as trainers attended to Brown. Even before they hoisted Brown up and helped him into the locker room, Rowe had gathered everyone together, clapped once and nodded his head, as if to say, “Let’s go.”
Rowe remembered being in this position, summoned with little notice. It happened against North Carolina State last season, when Maryland needed instant offense and a last-second comeback, something the fleet-footed Devin Burns couldn’t provide. So with then-starter Perry Hills carted into the locker room with a torn ACL, Coach Randy Edsall tabbed Rowe, who marched the Terps into North Carolina State territory and, had Brad Craddock’s 33-yarder not struck the left upright, would have been hailed the hero.
“We’ve been through this before,” Rowe said. “It’s next man up. I feel like we did that.”
Rowe conjured memories of that 2012 afternoon on Saturday, when his first pass – a 19-yard strike to Deon Long — gave the Terrapins their first third-down conversion against the Seminoles, which also happened to be half their third-down conversions in a nightmarish 63-0 loss.
In Brown’s stead, Rowe completed 9 of 17 passes for 119 yards. But he never entered Florida State territory and Maryland flew home to College Park with its worst loss in 20 years.
“Anytime you lose a player, lose a key player, it’s going to set you back a little bit,” center Sal Conaboy said. “Caleb stepped in and the coaches will mold a game plan around him, what he’s good at. It’s not something we’re really worried about.”
Edsall remained noncommittal on Sunday when asked about Brown’s injury. Conaboy said he saw Brown at Doak Campbell Stadium, and the quarterback reassured him that everything would be fine. But concussions mandate strict protocol, and with increased focus on head injuries these days, Maryland will make sure Brown has fully recovered before sending him back onto the field.
Until then – Brown remains day-to-day, Maryland will not release its injury report until Thursday afternoon and practices are closed to the media – Rowe elevates into the starting role, just like he did in a 20-17 loss at Boston College last season before he, too tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the year.
After beating Hills and Ricardo Young for the backup job this preseason, Rowe entered Saturday with garbage-time appearances against Florida International (5 of 6 for 44 yards) and Old Dominion (one pass, one interception).
Against the Seminoles, Rowe was his standard self. With unarguably the strongest arm among Maryland’s quarterbacks, the sophomore whipped passes around and took shots downfield, twice hooking up with Long for 19 yards and finding Nigel King for 26 yards before he lost a fumble upon impact. He dropped back for 22 passes and handed off 13 times.
But Rowe also went three-and-out five times and never engineered a drive longer than 36 yards, something Brown had done just once in his five full possessions under center.
“I thought Caleb went in and really did some good things yesterday,” Edsall said on Sunday, after reviewing the film. “And he’s always made himself ready to be able to play, if the situation calls for it. He was prepared to go in there and yesterday and he had to and he went in and did some good things.”
With his cannon right arm and charismatic southern twang, Rowe has developed somewhat of a cult following among Maryland fans, some of whom still believe him to be the proper gun-slinging quarterback given the team’s arsenal of playmaking receivers. He’s deceptively quick but best in the pocket, the reason why Rowe threw 42 passes at Boston College as the Terps all but abandoned their read-option principles. Maryland doesn’t need Rowe to mirror Brown, rushing for touchdowns and breaking through gaps, but it still needs chunk rushing yardage from its quarterbacks to open up other lanes.
And if Brown’s concussion indeed sidelines him this Saturday against Virginia, Rowe will insist on doing exactly what he did at Doak Campbell Stadium: remove the headset, strap on his helmet and step into the huddle.
“Everyone was down, of course,” Rowe said. “Who wouldn’t be? But coach had a good message. We have to come back next week and prove ourselves again.”