Maryland’s new-look 3-4 defense has traveled miles since a disastrous 2011. It has been transformed into a veteran unit that allowed just 45 second-half yards on Saturday. Coupled with another spark from freshman wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the Terrapins (3-2, 1-0 ACC) have surpassed their win total from Coach Randy Edsall’s inaugural season.
“If you make a lot of mistakes you can’t expect to win games, there’s a small margin of error,” Diggs said. “We’re going to hear about it tomorrow, but it’s good to get a ‘W’ battling adversity. It’s big and it builds team camaraderie and chemistry.”
Diggs set up Justus Pickett’s winning one-yard touchdown run with another highlight-reel burst, taking an underneath route 63 yards, churning and swerving through waves of white Wake Forest jerseys, supported by jarring blocks by Pickett and Marcus Leak. The fourth-quarter jaunt finally injected life into an offense that rarely found a breathable moment in the second half.
Pickett plunged into the end zone three plays later for his team-high third rushing touchdown of the season and a 19-14 lead that their defense maintained. But all afternoon, the yellow flags flew and fumbles squirted out, each an additional reminder of Maryland’s offensive woes, each another chance for this young team to hoist itself out of of a hole.
“I’m very proud of our guys for battling and hanging in there,” Edsall said. “We have a lot of things we still need to clean up, but I’ll take the win and know that the things we need to fix are things we can take care of and things the players want to take care of.”
Edsall spoke candidly during his postgame remarks, at once frustrated at the three turnovers and eight penalties, yet enlightened and amazed that a team with just 51 rushing yards and 244 yards of offense never let things get out of hand.
Quarterback Perry Hills still needs work on his check-downs, Edsall said of the freshman who found a wide-open Kevin Dorsey in the end zone on a 33-yard fade route late in the second quarter but also had an interception and a lost fumble. Diggs, with a muffed punt and a dropped pass that was rendered moot by a Wake Forest penalty, sometimes tried to do too much. Place kicker Brad Craddock, despite drilling field goals of 49 and 52 yards in the first half, missed a 44-yarder that would have put the Terrapins ahead and an extra point in the fourth quarter.
The defense wasn’t immune to miscues, either. Blown coverage led to a 73-yard touchdown pass from Price to Terence Davis on the game’s opening possession for a Wake Forest team that suspended six players on Friday evening and was already missing leading receiver Michael Campanaro because of injury.
Close wins like this, Edsall said, can make a coach age five years.
But it was only one year ago that Maryland’s defense ranked 108th nationally. Entering Saturday’s game, Maryland was eighth at 261 yards allowed per game; Wake Forest could only muster 241.
Midway through the second quarter, Wake Forest had fourth and goal from a football-length out. The offensive line parted and running back Josh Harris saw daylight. The junior went airborne, bound for the end zone, but was sprung backwards by Dexter McDougle and Hartsfield, who cracked Harris high and sent him sailing.
“That was crazy,” said McDougle, who heard the noise from the season-high 40,391 fans and knew they had gotten the stop. “That was one of the most hyped moments of the year.”
The goal-line stand was a preview of Maryland’s second-half lockdown, a telling moment for a defense that overcame one big letdown with even bigger stops, tipped passes, fumble recoveries and near-interceptions. “The defense won the game for us,” Hills said. “The defense played a great game. They’ve played well all year and I’m glad to have a defense as good as they are.”
After Pickett’s plunge, each team traded three-and-outs before Wake Forest took over at its 23-yard line with 3 minutes 28 seconds left. On third and six, Tate busted through for a nine-yard sack. Hartsfield did the same on fourth down. Four straight Pickett runs and a last-minute Hail Mary by Price ticked the clock to zero. And off they went, celebrating into the student section and then jogging into Gossett Team House together, Six and Meat, two leaders on a defense stocked with them.