No matter how many nifty plays Boomer Esiason and the offense pulled off in the fourth quarter today, it was the Terrapins' defense--with eight new starters playing like veterans--that enabled 17th-ranked Maryland to beat Vanderbilt, 21-14, in the oppressive heat of Vanderbilt Stadium.
True, Esiason threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bill Rogers with 2:24 left for the winning score. And Esiason set up the score with a 47-yard pass two plays earlier to Greg Hill. And he completed 17 of 31 passes for 269 yards.
But the main reason Maryland was able to win this season opener was that cornerback Lendell Jones, with Vanderbilt driving for a score, intercepted Kurt Page at the six-yard line with 3:24 remaining in the game.
"It was a quick out pattern, and their receiver (Joe Kelly) didn't run a good pattern," Jones said. "He didn't come back to the ball quickly, and I just stepped in front of him."
And on the last play of the game, when Vanderbilt tried a 30-yard lob into the end zone, Clarence Baldwin took the deflection for another interception.
Even before that, with the Terrapin offense stumbling and helping the Commodores take a 14-7 lead into the fourth quarter, the defense held on most of the important plays, and allowed the offense to mount a glamorous drive to make up for the mistakes.
"Defensively, I can't be prouder," Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said, wiping away the perspiration of a 98-degree day. "Yes, I am surprised the defense played this well early in the season. We had only one breakdown on defense all day. We handled their multiple fronts and shifts very well, and that's just good preparation."
Brian Baker, an end, had insisted all week the defense wouldn't be as vulnerable as some thought. "I'm not going to lie and tell you I wanted it to come down to us stopping them on the six-yard line," he said, "but we came through and showed some people we could play--even ourselves."
Maryland's winning touchdown could have been stopped one yard short of a first down. Rogers, playing for the first time in three years and his first game as a Terrapin, caught a third-and-six pass from Esiason at the 38. He was hit by Vandy freshman Armando Fitz, who tried to strip him of the ball--a fifth defensive back--but broke away and ran for the the score.
On the previous play, Esiason had dropped back into his end zone and thrown long to Hill, who beat Vanderbilt's best player, Len Coleman, on a marvelous diving catch just across the midfield area.
"On the previous series," Hill explained, "I had noticed Coleman bite when Boomer rolled out. He sorta stopped and crouched. I went back to the sideline and told the coaches. And I said to Boomer, 'Next time, just lay it up there.' "
Joe Krivak, Maryland's offensive coordinator, saw the same thing from the press box and called the play on first down from the Maryland six. "When the play came in," Esiason said, "I looked up and said, 'Huh? Oh well, what the hell.' "
Esiason had success against Coleman when not overthrowing receivers. "I didn't play well in the first half, which is one reason why we couldn't move the ball," Esiason said. "I was tight, and I think several other guys on the offense were, too."
Maryland never would have regained the ball, however, if it weren't for Jones, who made seven interceptions last year.
Vanderbilt had the ball at midfield after Maryland botched a play. Esiason turned around to reposition Rick Badanjek, and turned back to find the ball being snapped off his right hand.
The Commodores recovered with 5:05 to play and moved 43 yards, with the big plays coming on passes of 25 and 12 yards from Page to Arnell Fuller. But on second and six from the 12, Page threw the pass that Jones intercepted.
"Normally, it's a low-risk play," Commodore Coach George MacIntyre said. "Kurt can either overthrow the receiver or throw it away. It's a shame that had to happen in that situation." Page completed 26 of 49 passes for 241 yards and two scores.
One of the touchdown passes came with 10:40 left in the first half, one play after Jones had been called for pass interference, which moved the ball 39 yards to the Maryland six. Page passed to Phil Roach at the back of the end zone.
That tied the game just four minutes after Maryland had taken a 7-0 lead on Dave D'Addio's fourth-and-goal leap into the end zone following Scott Tye's block of a Vanderbilt punt. D'Addio nearly scored in the first quarter but fumbled one of his eight receptions (113 yards) in the end zone, with Vanderbilt recovering.
Vanderbilt went ahead, 14-7, just before halftime when Page threw a seven-yard scoring pass to Roach, following a fumble by Terrapin receiver Sean Sullivan after a reception.
But Maryland tied the game, 14-all, 12 seconds into the fourth quarter, as Badanjek ran in from the five.
Maryland gained 474 yards in total offense-- Willie Joyner and Badanjek each rushed for 77--114 yards more than Vanderbilt.
"When we had to have it, we had it," Ross said. "That, to me, is the makings of a good team."