EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — They gathered around to hear their coach’s message, deep inside the tunnels of his old home. The Maryland football team had trudged its way to a 32-21 victory before a hostile Connecticut crowd at Rentschler Field that booed Coach Randy Edsall’s long-awaited return. The Terrapins had committed three turnovers, lost two key starters to injury and self-imposed a slew of mental errors. But with the buses parked just outside the stadium and a late-night flight awaiting, Edsall focused on the big picture.
For the first time since 2001, Maryland is 3-0.
“We’ve got a lot of things we have to get better, but there’s a lot of things we did well tonight,” Edsall said. “Sometimes that happens when you have a young team. They never lost their composure, they never lost their poise.”
Maryland’s season-opening manhandlings of Florida International and Old Dominion would obviously not be repeated in every game. Thirty-point routs were bound to fade as the Terrapins’ schedule inched closer and closer to ACC play. Defenses would scheme better. Offenses would move farther. Blowouts were nice, but the Terps needed a win like this. They needed to overcome two fumbles and one interception, a host of dropped passes and the loss of another starting cornerback who, mere seconds earlier, had given Maryland its biggest jolt of the night.
As Dexter McDougle gnawed his undershirt in agony, clutching his right shoulder after a low tackle jammed it into the grass, Maryland sat comfortably ahead 27-13. His interception of quarterback Chandler Whitmer and 49-yard touchdown return ensured as much. A 40-yard field goal by Brad Craddock and a safety gained when Whitmer was called for intentional grounding in the end zone ballooned Maryland’s lead to 32-13.
When the Huskies moved 75 yards on one play and converted the ensuing two-point attempt, they moved within 11 points and seemed poised to make things interesting. But, like it did the entire night, Maryland’s defense lifted up its offense. Last season, Connecticut sacked the Terps six times in a 24-21 win at Byrd Stadium. On Saturday night, the script was flipped. Whitmer was dropped six times and Maryland, as it had planned all week, exacted revenge.
“We definitely faced some adversity today,” quarterback C.J. Brown said. “But it was all self-imposed with the fumbles. The defense was knocking them out. We were dropping them. We’ll get it all corrected. We’ll watch the film, get the reads. They were playing good defense. They were doing things we didn’t prepare for. But we had our own toolbox.”
That, in a nutshell, distanced this win from Maryland’s previous two this season. The offense chewed up yardage but struggled to find the end zone. Wide receiver Deon Long dropped a surefire touchdown pass, and standout Stefon Diggs admitted that Saturday’s game wasn’t his best effort either, despite five catches for 110 yards. Brown, who entered the game ranked third nationally according to ESPN’s quarterback rating metric, completed just 53.6 percent of his attempts and wobbled several throws on the run.
Couple that with fumbles by Brandon Ross, who upchucked the ball after breaking several tackles, and Albert Reid, who mishandled an option pitch, and Connecticut had every opportunity to capitalize. But there will come times this season when the offense struggles and Maryland’s defense needs to shoulder the load, when coordinator Brian Stewart’s unit rolls back onto the field after a first-play turnover and must catch its breath, regroup and go again.
“There were some flashbacks to last year,” linebacker Cole Farrand said. “You kind of give the offense a stink-eye. But then you got to go out there and play. Things will happen. We’re not perfect. We let up some big plays today. It happens. You just have to get over it.”
Get over it. Something Maryland must do this week with a marquee matchup against West Virginia looming at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium next Saturday, an opportunity to remain undefeated and perhaps reach the top 25 for the first time since 2010, when the Terps cracked the final poll of the season at No. 23. Brown said the Terps must stop “shooting ourselves in the foot.” Edsall lamented a third straight 500-yard game with just two offensive touchdowns. There will be plenty to glean during film study, but as the Terps fired off their postgame tweets from the buses rolling north to the airport, the message was unified.
“Came out with the win,” Brown said. “It wasn’t pretty, but we did what we needed to do to get the job done.”