When the play call came into the huddle -- four vertical routes -- Sam Hollenbach thought about making amends, and Jo Jo Walker thought about making something happen.
Maryland trailed North Carolina by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter last Saturday and faced third and 15. Over his previous 111/2 quarters of significant playing time, Hollenbach had thrown two touchdown passes and five interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown on the Terps' previous series. Over their previous 151/2 quarters, Maryland's wide receivers, including Walker, had caught just one pass longer than 32 yards. And now here was a chance to head downfield and change all of that.
"Your juices get flowing, you run the route faster," Walker said about the play call. "It just basically warms you up inside."
That play ended 67 yards later with Walker in the end zone; it was easily the longest reception by a Maryland wide receiver this season. The mark lasted less than four minutes. On Hollenbach's next passing attempt, wide receiver Danny Melendez ran a double move, Hollenbach froze the defensive back with a pump fake and the Terps had an 80-yard touchdown, their longest offensive play since November of 2003 and their longest passing play since November of 2002.
"Two great balls, right on the money," Melendez said. "We didn't have to break stride at all. All we had to do is catch the ball and run into the end zone."
They were also the kind of plays Maryland fans had clamored for much of the season. In Hollenbach, the Terps have a quarterback with an arm strong enough to launch such passes; Coach Ralph Friedgen said Hollenbach has thrown the deep ball better than any of the quarterbacks he's coached over the past five years.
"There was a time here when we would have a guy open and just throw the ball out of bounds," Friedgen said. "I see him throw those kind of passes every day in practice."
They also have receivers with enough speed to make such plays. Walker, Derrick Fenner and tight end Vernon Davis all ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.45 seconds last spring.
"We've got receivers that can run with anybody in this conference. We can run past people, but we just take what they give us," Walker said. "If they give us the run we're going to take the run, if they give us short passes we're going to take short passes, if they give us deep balls we're going to take deep balls. We felt that [the Tar Heels] were susceptible to the deep ball, so we took the deep ball."
Which is the same answer provided by offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe. He said vertical routes have been called frequently this season, but that defensive coverages have sent Hollenbach looking elsewhere. On Hollenbach's first deep strike last weekend, a linebacker stuck with Davis, leaving Walker in single coverage. Before the second long touchdown, coaches noticed the Tar Heels' cornerbacks cheating on basic out routes and so they turned to what Taaffe called "a schoolyard play:" Melendez faked an out, Hollenbach faked a throw, and then the receiver took off.
While those two touchdowns rallied the Terps on Saturday and made possible their overtime win, Taaffe said they will not change the team's offensive outlook tomorrow against Boston College. Longer routes bring a greater likelihood of Hollenbach being hit, and the quarterback is still nursing a sore left shoulder. If anything, Taaffe said, those longer routes could make the Eagles more conscious of double moves, loosening up the short passing game.
"That cornerback's definitely got in the back of his mind now, 'Hey, if I get too aggressive and jump this thing . . . then the same result could happen,' " Taaffe said. "So it has a residual effect."
And if more deep routes are called in from the sidelines, neither the receivers nor their quarterback are likely to complain.
"I feel confident in our receivers, I'll throw the ball up to them every chance I can get," Hollenbach said. "So yeah, I love it when that play call comes in."