Eric Najarian had never taken a snap at the college level. The sophomore walk-on served as Maryland’s third-string quarterback all season. Earlier this week, he mimicked the Rutgers offense as part of the scout team. But against the Scarlet Knights, with starter Taulia Tagovailoa unavailable and backup Lance LeGendre struggling, Najarian took control of the offense and performed well before the Terrapins fell short in overtime.

The Terps could have scored their third conference victory, turning Najarian into the team’s unlikely hero and giving the veterans a perfect end to senior day. But instead, Rutgers earned a 27-24 win thanks to a pair of critical field goals. Rutgers kicker Valentino Ambrosio’s 39-yarder tied the game as time expired, and then he made a 42-yard attempt in overtime.

Najarian had the opportunity to lead the Terps to a game-winning touchdown, but after Maryland’s first play of overtime, wide receiver Jeshaun Jones picked up a personal foul that pushed the offense back to the 37-yard line. Najarian completed a pass to Jones for nine yards but missed his next attempt and was sacked on third down. Maryland’s Joseph Petrino missed his 50-yard field goal attempt, nearly as long as his career best of 51 yards, and the Scarlet Knights (3-5) rushed the field to celebrate inside the empty stadium.

“It was really disappointing,” Najarian said. “To lose any game is disappointing, but then to lose in that fashion hurts even a little bit more.”

Maryland (2-3) played without four key players — Tagovailoa, starting linebacker Chance Campbell, linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II and cornerback Jakorian Bennett — who all missed the game for medical reasons, a team spokesman said. Tagovailoa and Campbell entered this game as two of the team’s eight offensive and defensive players who had started every game. Coach Michael Locksley said the staff learned Friday morning that Tagovailoa would not be available for this game. Locksley declined to comment when asked whether those missing players tested positive for the coronavirus.

Najarian helped Maryland take a 24-21 lead late in the fourth quarter when he escaped pressure on a third-and-19 play and threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brian Cobbs. Najarian struggled early in the game, but he improved as the game progressed and gave Maryland a chance to win. Najarian finished with 218 yards on 12-for-23 passing with two touchdowns and no major mistakes.

“Kudos and credit to him for having himself prepared to go out and perform the way he did,” Locksley said of Najarian. “It’s a shame the surrounding cast all didn’t do their part from a discipline standpoint, an execution standpoint to send these seniors out the right way.”

The loss of Tagovailoa forced Maryland’s offense into a worrisome position, and before Najarian settled into the game, the group had little success outside of senior running back Jake Funk, who rushed for 180 yards and caught four passes for another 33 yards. Funk surpassed 100 rushing yards for only the second time in his career and scored on a 44-yard run late in the third quarter. On the next possession, Funk exploded for a 52-yard gain, but he said he suffered a minor shoulder sprain and couldn’t play the rest of the game.

LeGendre, a redshirt freshman who had attempted seven passes in his college career before Saturday, struggled to move the ball in his first start for Maryland. After LeGendre threw an interception late in the first quarter and then led the Terps on another drive that yielded little positive yardage, Locksley turned to Najarian.

Upon entering the game in the second quarter, Najarian missed his first four pass attempts, and Locksley reverted to LeGendre after just two drives with Najarian under center. But LeGendre threw another interception on a pass way over the head of his receiver. Najarian led the offense through the rest of the game. LeGendre completed 7 of 10 passes, but those only amounted to 42 yards.

“Eric became the guy that gave us the best chance to win,” Locksley said. “We started with Lance, and we sputtered on offense. I felt like we weren’t in sync, whether it was the communication, the reads. The operation just wasn’t there.”

Until deep into the first half, Maryland’s drives had yielded five punts and two interceptions for a total of 80 yards. But with about two minutes before the break, Najarian finally orchestrated a 62-yard drive that ended with a 37-yard field goal from Petrino. On that drive, Najarian completed three passes, including a 20-yard gain on a third-down screen pass to Funk.

Despite the early offensive woes, Maryland had a 3-0 advantage at halftime. The Scarlet Knights endured an equally dreadful start on offense, and they couldn’t capitalize on either of the Terps’ early interceptions. Rutgers punted seven times and missed a 27-yard field goal in the first half.

Maryland’s defense held firm in the first half despite the key absences, which also included defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and special teams coordinator/inside linebackers coach George Helow. (Cornerbacks coach Henry Baker called the defensive plays in the absence of Hoke.) The Terps’ defense allowed only 23 yards in the first quarter, then 80 yards in the second. The Terps kept the Scarlet Knights from scoring until Bo Melton reached the end zone in the third quarter on a reverse for 44 yards. Linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay led Maryland with 10 tackles, and freshman defensive back Tarheeb Still had an impressive showing with four pass breakups.

After a slow offensive start for both teams, Maryland and Rutgers combined for six touchdowns in the second half. As Najarian became more comfortable, the Maryland staff began to expand the playbook.

“After the first drive, you kind of just shake the cobwebs out, and then you’re really into it after the first couple plays,” Najarian said. “You get an opportunity to go out there, do what you can do. After that first drive, though, it really just starts to feel like football.”

Maryland’s defense had an up-and-down showing, playing well early and generating several important stops but also making a few costly mistakes. The Terps struggled to contain the quarterback run at times, and, like Maryland’s, the Scarlet Knights’ offense improved as the game progressed, despite an injury to quarterback Noah Vedral. Locksley said he was most disappointed in his team’s 12 penalties that cost Maryland 128 yards.

“You can’t help a good team be better,” Gotay said of the penalties. “We’ve got to put in the effort on our part to stay disciplined, and the game probably would have went different.”

Trailing 24-21, Rutgers attempted to convert a fourth down from Maryland’s 45-yard line, but Artur Sitkowski’s pass to Shameen Jones only gained three of the needed seven yards. Maryland took over on offense with 3:14 to go, and the Terps only needed to pick up a couple first downs to seal the game. But three consecutive carries from running back Tayon Fleet-Davis only combined to produce five yards. Maryland had to punt, giving Rutgers the opportunity to construct a game-winning drive. The Scarlet Knights only managed to tie the score, sending them to overtime where Ambrosio delivered the winning field goal.

“The key to the game was to finish,” Locksley said of his team, which will play one more conference game next week against a yet-to-be-determined opponent. “We had a chance to finish the game on offense, and we didn’t. We had a chance to finish the game on defense, and we didn’t. And we had a chance to extend the game on special teams, and we didn’t.”