By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 10:30 PM
MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. - The chess match played out over four quarters, with coordinators Don Brown of Maryland and Mark Whipple of Miami - former colleagues at New England schools - making moves and countermoves: Whipple shuffled offensive players in and out. Brown answered with unbalanced defensive lines. Whipple responded with a hurry-up attack.
On the 79th play of the schematic duel, Brown needed his unit to make one more stop. The Terrapins applied quarterback pressure. They double-teamed Miami's top wide receiver. But a game filled with deft personnel moves and disguises simply came down to one throw, one 35-yard spiral by a former fourth-string quarterback making his first college start.
With Terrapins linebacker David Mackall barreling toward him, freshman Stephen Morris completed the winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Leonard Hankerson with 37 seconds remaining to give the Hurricanes a 26-20 win over Maryland at half-empty Sun Life Stadium. The defensive play call mattered little because the throw was perfect.
"I'm sure when I look at the tape I'll be sick to my stomach," said Brown, who was the defensive coordinator under his close friend Whipple at Brown and Massachusetts in the late 1990s. "I should have done this, should have done that. Whenever you are in one of those, that's kind of how you feel at the end of the day."
It was a valiant effort by a Maryland team that had struggled in its other two road games against formidable competition (West Virginia and Clemson). The Terrapins were opportunistic defensively - linebacker Alex Wujciak intercepted two passes and returned one 60 yards for a score - and quarterback Danny O'Brien moved the ball moderately well against perhaps the best defense he will see all season.
And with only 37 seconds and one timeout to work with, O'Brien took four plays to move the ball to the Miami 30. There, on the game's final play, he floated a pass to the left side of the end zone. Wide receiver Adrian Cannon got his hands on the ball but placed his left foot out of bounds and lost any chance at the reception when safety Vaughn Telemaque came across and blasted him in the chest. Despite Morris's late-game heroics, Maryland still nearly won.
"This is how we can play," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "That's something we should be able to take from this."
The Terrapins (6-3, 3-2 ACC) will rue mistakes and missed opportunities throughout, especially ones that occurred on Miami's game-winning scoring drive that began with 3 minutes 6 seconds on the clock.
There was the third-and-two play, when Morris - starting in place of concussed Jacory Harris - completed a nine-yard pass and Maryland was penalized 15 more yards because lineman Joe Vellano was cited for rouging the passer.
"Not a smart play," Friedgen said.
There was the third and 11 near midfield, when Morris couldn't find an open receiver so he ran 16 yards for the first down. Without specifying the player, Friedgen said a "young kid" on the edge didn't execute his assignment properly. A replay showed Mackall hesitated when Morris started to drift right. Mackall then was soundly blocked by a tight end as Morris darted into the open field.
"It's not on the young man," Brown said. "It's on me."
Then came the touchdown pass by Morris, who remained on the ground pointing to the sky after Hankerson caught it. Cornerback Dexter McDougle appeared to have Hankerson sufficiently covered - or close to it - with help from safety Kenny Tate. "A perfectly thrown ball," said Tate, adding that had it been thrown "anywhere else, I could have made a play on it."
Miami (6-3, 4-2) converted the two-point conversion to give it a six-point lead.
A handful of other plays prevented Maryland from perhaps closing out the game earlier. With a little more than five minutes remaining and the Terrapins leading 20-18, running back Davin Meggett gained just eight yards on three carries, forcing the Terrapins to punt. Miami had burned all of its timeouts in the third quarter, so an extended drive would have greatly helped the Terrapins' cause.
James Franklin, Maryland's offensive coordinator, had no regrets on the play calling that series. And Friedgen said "in a perfect world I would have liked to make two first downs and take a knee. It's far from a perfect world."
At the end of the third quarter, after Wujciak's second interception gave Maryland the ball at the Miami 17, O'Brien made an uncharacteristic mistake when he underthrew LaQuan Williams. Safety Ray-Ray Armstrong intercepted in the end zone.
"That was huge," said Friedgen, who otherwise thought O'Brien (9-for-28 passing for 134 yards and one touchdown) held his own. "We have not done that all year."
And finally, in the second quarter, Maryland faced a second-and-goal play at the Miami 2. Maryland's coaches inserted backup quarterback Jamarr Robinson, who wound up losing eight yards when he recovered his fumbled snap. (Robinson told coaches that he never got the snap.) Maryland settled for a 27-yard field goal.
The loss - played amid a sterile Miami homecoming atmosphere - was a "heartbreaker," Tate said. But Maryland's players and coaches said the sting will be short-lived. After all, the other teams near the top of the ACC Atlantic Division - Florida State and North Carolina State, Maryland's final two opponents of the regular season - also lost.
"They worked all year for this opportunity," Friedgen said. "They were right there. Obviously we showed we could play. We're a pretty darn good football team."