In the hours leading up to Maryland’s season opener, the normal routine of a college football Saturday sputtered into action. A Maryland flag runner practiced his celebratory route in the end zone. Fans with the state flag printed on their sleeves took photos of an empty field. The Terrapins’ band filed onto the turf as kickoff approached.
Since this summer, the game of football has become secondary for Maryland’s program. The death of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair carried more weight than any on-the-field question. The tragedy, and the ensuing controversy related to allegations of an abusive team culture, has prompted two independent investigations and thrown the tenures of Maryland Coach DJ Durkin and other officials in doubt.
With offensive coordinator Matt Canada acting as interim coach while Durkin remains on administrative leave, a game finally emerged into the forefront when the Terps faced No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field. And just as Terrapins did last year, Maryland upset a ranked Texas team, this time by 34-29.
Antoine Brooks Jr. sealed the win when he intercepted a pass by the Longhorns’ Sam Ehlinger at the Maryland 11-yard line with 1:13 remaining. The Terps outscored Texas 10-o in the final quarter and forced turnovers on the Longhorns’ final three drives.
“There was a real focus on this football team to win this game,” Canada said. ” . . . The only people that knew how we were going to play were the guys in our building. And I think they had no doubt they were going to win. They convinced me, because I can get nervous about just about anything.”
Freshman receiver Jeshaun Jones fueled the Terps’ early success with a stellar debut. He scored touchdowns on each of his first three college touches — one rushing, one receiving and one passing.
The three-star recruit from Florida leaped onto the scene with a 28-yard touchdown run on the sixth play of the game, enough for a solid first college showing in its own right. But then he kept scoring. Four minutes later, Jones grabbed a 65-yard touchdown pass from starting quarterback Kasim Hill — the longest play of the game. On his next touch, less than seven minutes into the second quarter, Jones threw a 20-yard pass to Taivon Jacobs.
“The trick play down there in the red zone, we kind of auditioned it,” Canada said of Jones’s passing touchdown. “I think we had three or four guys throw it in practice. His was the best, and we’re only going to do it one time, so he won.”
The Terps had a 24-7 lead, thanks to Jones and a strong defensive showing. But the Longhorns scored 22 consecutive points to surge ahead, forcing Maryland to muster the fourth-quarter rebound.
In the final quarter, the Terps’ defense rose again. Brett Kulka recovered a Texas fumble, and Tre Watson intercepted a pass from Ehlinger. Maryland regained the lead with a 17-yard touchdown run from sophomore running back Tayon Fleet-Davis and an 18-yard field goal from freshman kicker Joseph Petrino.
Particularly before kickoff, reminders of McNair were prominent. As the Terps ran onto the field for the first time this season, offensive lineman Ellis McKennie, a high school teammate of McNair, carried a flag with McNair’s No. 79 written in white on red fabric. He rested the pole on his shoulder as the team congregated on its sideline. During a moment of silence, McKennie raised the flag, stretched his arm above his head and then waved it with fervor in front of an announced crowd of 47,641.
The team’s captains carried McNair’s jersey to midfield for the coin toss, and every Maryland player wore a red helmet sticker with McNair’s jersey number. For Maryland’s first offensive play, the team lined up with 10 men on the field, leaving a spot open for Jordan McNair. Maryland let the clock run out, and Texas declined the penalty.
And then the game began — an illustration of the dichotomy the players will face this season. At times, they grieve. Then, they focus on the game. Canada said earlier this week that the team has tried to separate the two, while recognizing the pain won’t just disappear.
“Every win is great, but the team just stuck together through the whole course of everything that’s happened,” Jacobs said. “And we stayed together. That was our motto. And we stuck by it.”
In 2017, Maryland spoiled Tom Herman’s head-coaching debut with the Longhorns. This time Canada, an acting head coach for the first time in his career, started with success. After arriving in College Park about seven months ago, he gave Maryland fans their first glimpse of the Terps’ offense with him calling plays. Typically, Canada’s offenses have been creative and run-heavy. Against Texas, Canada used 11 ball carriers. At times, running backs acted as receivers and vice versa.
Twice, though, Canada’s offensive play calls contributed to the Texas rally. Jake Funk fumbled and was tackled in the end zone for a safety on a jet sweep to cut Maryland’s lead to 24-16 in the second quarter. With the lead down to 24-22 in the third quarter, Maryland attempted a fourth-down conversion at its own 36-yard line and could not gain the yard it needed. Texas quickly used the advantageous field position to score for its first lead of the day.
Normally, Canada would call plays from the booth upstairs, but in his interim role, he’s on the sideline, an unusual place for him.
“You talk about the thing I was most worried about, it was calling the game from the field,” Canada said. “I’ve never done that. I didn’t want to screw that job up. That’s my job. I’m the offensive coordinator and I call the plays. Sometimes I’m good at it and sometimes I’m not, but I was concerned about that.”
Canada opted to start Hill at quarterback rather than last season’s Week 1 starter, Tyrrell Pigrome. Both returned after suffering season-ending knee injuries last year — Pigrome in the first game of 2017 and Hill in the third.
Hill completed 17 of 29 passes for 222 yards and one touchdown, and rushed six times for 10 yards, on Saturday. Pigrome entered for a few snaps at a time at multiple points; he completed 3 of 4 passes for 22 yards and gained 12 more yards on three carries.
In a game delayed by lightning for more than an hour in the fourth quarter, three athletes scored for the first time as Terps: Jones, Tayon Fleet-Davis and Petrino, who also had a 33-yard field goal in the second quarter.
“Today was just fun to be back out there with everybody,” Hill said. “The things that you miss on the sidelines — all the emotion, all the conversations, just the flow of the game, just being out there with those dudes — that’s the love of it right there.”