(Associated Press)

Caleb Rowe returned to the huddle and thought to himself, “I can’t believe I did that.” He had panicked at the worst possible moment: With a Virginia defensive player careening toward the backfield he yanked an option pitch high over the helmet of running back Brandon Ross. So as the Maryland football team faced third and 21, down six with the clock ticking down, Rowe stepped before his teammates and, with his soft southern twang, reassured them.

“I’ll make it up to you guys. That was me,” he said.

Maryland’s backup quarterback then scrambled to his right on a play that both Rowe and wide receiver Deon Long later claimed the other botched. As Rowe uncorked a deep shot into Cavaliers territory, the game and arguably the future course of Maryland’s season rested on Long coming down with the ball between two defenders, on Rowe summoning one last bit of luck when his team needed it most, especially with starter C.J. Brown sidelined by a concussion.

“He did a great job, especially coming off C.J.’s injury,” running back Brandon Ross said. “He only had a week to prepare. He hadn’t been playing all season. He managed the offense well. Caleb’s a real poised guy, so I knew he would do well.”

“Finally got a bounce our way this time,” Rowe would say later. His 47-yard completion to Long set up a 12-yard slingshot touchdown pass that tight end Dave Stinebaugh scooped into his arms, giving Maryland its final points in a wildly nail-biting 27-26 win over the Cavaliers.

“You’re never expecting anything like that,” Stinebaugh said.

The game, which ended when Virginia place kicker Alec Vozenilek sent his 42-yard attempt short and wide right with 10 seconds left, brought back memories of Rowe’s last appearance in College Park, when Brad Craddock’s 35-yarder against North Carolina State struck the left upright with no time left last October.

The Terps joked about that moment in the locker room, because winning means their minds could rest easy.

“The tables were turned this time,” Rowe said. “It’s a great feeling to win. I’ll go ahead and say that.”

At times Saturday, Rowe appeared to be the same high-risk/high-reward option who helped engineer that potential game-winning drive against the Wolfpack and then started the Terrapins’ 20-17 loss at Boston College the next week, during which he suffered a season-ending ACL tear. He finished with 332 passing yards against the Cavs, the most by a Maryland quarterback since Danny O’Brien had 348 in Coach Randy Edsall’s first game with the program, though he lost a fumble and had two passes nearly intercepted.

But Rowe had just enough good fortune Saturday, as those two tipped passes fell into waiting Maryland hands.

“He is a gunslinger,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “He has matured a lot from last year to this year. He can put that stuff behind him now. That is something we try to talk about. When the play is over you put it behind you and move forward. Last year, I am not sure he would have been able to put it behind him. Now he is more mature and understands. I thought he played well enough for us to win tonight, which is the bottom-line.”

If Brown returns at Wake Forest next week – he warmed up in full pads before Rowe started, and barring any setback should be ready – Rowe will return to his regular game-day duties, wearing a baseball cap and headset and signaling plays from the sidelines.

Yet this night belonged to Rowe, an able-bodied substitute good enough to give Maryland a win it sorely needed. So as they swarmed the end zone to celebrate, the game-winning touchdown securely in Stinebaugh’s hands, more than a few players harbored the same thought toward Rowe:

“I can’t believe he just did that.”