Two teams left Byrd Stadium on Nov. 5, 2011, one an up-and-coming program bound for Atlanta and the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the other a runaway disaster chugging toward a forgettable 2-10 finish. Virginia dropped Maryland, 31-13, that afternoon, a fifth straight loss that officially ended the Terrapins’ bowl hopes and had red-clad fans again making early exits.
Oh, how things have changed.
A year later, the Cavaliers are reeling from four straight losses and struggling to find their footing in Mike London’s third season. Meanwhile, Maryland is 3-2 and in position to make a postseason push that seemed unthinkable given the offseason turmoil caused by injuries and transfers.
Virginia’s players have declared Saturday’s matchup at Scott Stadium a de facto “bowl game,” an opportunity to reverse the course of a season that began with wins over Richmond and Penn State, yet has devolved into blowout losses against Georgia Tech and TCU, a six-point defeat at home to Louisiana Tech and, the low point, a 42-17 handling by upstart Duke last weekend.
Maryland’s confidence under Coach Randy Edsall, however, is at an all-time high, London said. The Terrapins’ defense ranks seventh nationally in yards allowed per game; Wake Forest managed all of four yards in the fourth quarter of last weekend’s Terrapins win. The unit has progressed miles since it surrendered 527 yards to the Cavaliers in 2011, buoyed by a blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme engineered by new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and powered by a veteran-laden front seven.
The Terrapins’ offense needs work — it has been downright immobile at times, save the occasional Stefon Diggs highlight-reel play — but Maryland has closed out all three wins in the fourth quarter, mustering enough points and letting the defense do the rest.
“They’re playing with a level of confidence, which is important when you have a young team, and that’s very evident on film,” London said. “You go for longevity in this profession, but you know you’re evaluated from year to year as things go on. But when you look in Coach Edsall’s case right now, there’s an improvement. You see a team playing with that high level and that energy. That’s probably the biggest thing you notice.”
Through six games last season, the Cavaliers were 4-2. Now, their 2-4 record has some in Charlottesville wondering where things came off the rails. Virginia ranks last nationally in turnover margin and tackles for a loss. Its scoring defense is ranked 100th and, like Maryland’s at times, has suffered from ceding too many big plays. Phillip Sims has taken over for Michael Rocco under center, a quarterback shuffle Stewart said he’d want no part of.
“They have a little bit of a dilemma down there, with two quarterbacks,” Edsall said this week. “You may have guys in the Rocco camp, guys in the Sims camp. They may have a little bit of a controversy themselves down there.”
No such controversy exists in College Park. Quarterback Perry Hills has spent far too much time sacked and hurried in his true freshman season behind an inexperienced offensive line but has delivered pinpoint passes in crunch time, allowing playmakers like Diggs to shoulder the burden.
At least the border-state rivalry is alive and well. The teams are crossover opponents in ACC play and often compete for recruits. Maryland defensive end A.J. Francis dropped a dismissive line about the Cavaliers in a Terrapins-themed rap song. Virginia linebacker LaRoy Reynolds remembers Edsall proclaiming that the Terrapins “don’t lose to Virginia” at a Maryland basketball game soon after he was hired in 2011.
“It’s one of those deals, these games mean a lot,” Francis said. “I’m 1-3 [in] my career against Virginia, and I’m trying to get 2-3. Last year they beat us on senior night, and I felt bad for my seniors. That was a game that stuck with us all offseason, and we’ve got to get ready to redeem ourselves down at their place.”
Edsall keeps in touch with London, as much as he does any fellow coach, but says he hardly notices the direction Virginia is headed, positively or, most recently, negatively.
“I really don’t look at other programs; I just concern myself with what we’re doing,” Edsall said. “If I start focusing on the direction of other programs, I’m not doing justice to this program. Really, what you do, you take a look at that program, and that team you’re playing that particular week. I don’t follow it close enough, other than a day-to-day basis during game week.”