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Maryland’s defense has the final say in comeback victory over SMU

Maryland 34, SMU 27

Rakim Jarrett sprints to the end zone on a 48-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, but it was Maryland's defense that saved the day Saturday in College Park. (Scott Taetsch for The Washington Post)

In the waning moments of this messy game, the Maryland Terrapins had to show they could deliver when the outcome depended on their skill under pressure. No penalty flags, only poise. That’s what the Terps needed.

Southern Methodist had the ball with 85 seconds remaining and 61 yards to go for a tying score, but the Maryland defense held firm. After a barrage of penalties had handcuffed the Terps for much of the evening, a student section that spent several hours in torment finally had reason to celebrate. Maryland’s defense forced an incompletion on fourth down, sealing the Terps’ 34-27 victory Saturday night.

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Minutes before, SMU faced a fourth down at the Maryland 9-yard line and again the Terps held. But their offense stalled, and the ensuing punt left the door ajar. Then the Terps (3-0) had to muster another stop before claiming a win in their first significant test of the season.

The victory came covered in yellow flags — 15 penalties for a loss of 141 yards for Maryland. The Terps created their own adversity, then overcame it.

“We did not play our best football today, let’s make no mistake about it,” Coach Michael Locksley said with a smile, eventually ending his opening remarks by telling reporters he was ready to answer questions about all the penalties.

Those miscues forced the Terps to play from behind through much of the game. Maryland tied the score at 27 early in the fourth quarter with Roman Hemby’s short touchdown run. As the Mustangs (2-1) tried to reclaim the lead, Dante Trader Jr. came up with a critical interception, the Terps’ third takeaway of the night after they hadn’t recorded any through the first two games.

Tight end Corey Dyches had a key 10-yard reception to convert on fourth down, dragging a defender past the first-down marker to keep the drive alive. Dyches said he knew where he was on the field and understood the situation, “so it was pretty much go hard or go home.” After five rushes from Hemby propelled the Terps closer to the end zone, Dyches scored the go-ahead touchdown with 7:30 remaining for Maryland’s first lead in the second half.

Maryland’s offense — even with a modest performance from quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (17 of 23 for 214 yards) — managed to gain 7.2 yards per play. A strong performance from Hemby and key defensive plays kept the Terps from being undone by their mistakes at Capital One Field in the final game before the venue is renamed SECU Stadium as part of a 10-year, $11 million deal with the credit union.

The Terps struggled to generate scoring opportunities because they struggled on third down (converting just 5 of 13), lost a drive because of Tai Felton’s fumble on a kickoff and held themselves back with penalties throughout.

“We’ve got to show maturity, and we’ve got to show the discipline that it takes to walk away and play within the next play, so that we cannot get dumb penalties, selfish penalties,” Locksley said.

Georgia can break your spirit. Just look at South Carolina’s empty stands.

Consider Maryland’s trip to the red zone just after the halftime break: The Terps had a few positive plays, pushing them down the field, and then a barrage of penalties. Maryland picked up illegal formation and illegal snap penalties on back-to-back plays inside the red zone. Wide receiver Jeshaun Jones caught a pass in the end zone, but lineman Mason Lunsford was flagged for holding, and Jones received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting after what he thought was a touchdown. The Terps settled for a 41-yard field goal to tie the game.

On the defensive end, the Terps surrendered 369 passing yards, yet managed to keep the game within reach thanks to junior defensive back Beau Brade’s standout showing with an interception, a forced fumble and a team-high 15 tackles — one of the few bright spots in the sloppy game.

The defense struggled to contain standout SMU wide receiver Rashee Rice. He recorded his third consecutive game with at least 130 receiving yards by picking up a career high of 193 against the Terps’ defense.

“We kept fighting,” Locksley said. “Our defense may have given up some yardage, but when we needed stops, they got us stops.”

Both teams entered in the top 25 nationally in scoring offense, but the up-tempo SMU unit ran far more plays Saturday (96) than the Terps (61). Maryland had trouble limiting the Mustangs’ explosive plays. In the first half, SMU had eight receptions of at least 15 yards and two rushes for at least 10. The Terps’ defense improved as the game went on, despite losing starting linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II to an unspecified injury early.

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Maryland’s offense eventually got going by stringing together a series of powerful runs from the trio of backs — Hemby, Antwain Littleton II and Colby McDonald — capped by Littleton’s one-yard, highflying leap into the end zone. The Terps’ defense then forced its first turnover of the season with Brade’s interception, which set up a 48-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to receiver Rakim Jarrett on the next play.

The Terps’ laundry list of penalties, often at inopportune times, grew to an extent that would make a coach groan if they had been compiled over the course of a month, let alone in a single game.

In three instances early in the game when Maryland faced a third- or fourth-and-short, an offensive lineman picked up a false start. Once, the Terps had to settle for a field goal, which Chad Ryland hit from 36 yards out. The next time, Maryland couldn’t convert the third down and had to punt. The third flag derailed the Terps’ fourth-down attempt from their own 34-yard line, forcing another punt.

After Maryland generated back-to-back touchdown drives but still faced a 20-17 deficit in the final minutes before halftime, Tagovailoa scrambled past the first-down marker, but Jones picked up a personal foul. Two plays later, Jones juggled a ball that was called incomplete on a third-down sideline catch that, upon replay on the videoboard, prompted the student section to boo with gusto.

Then came the atrocious trip to the red zone that ended with a field goal and set the stage for continued trouble in the second half. With the Maryland defense on the field in the third quarter, the unit picked up three penalties — unsportsmanlike conduct, roughing the passer and pass interference — but avoided damage after Ahmad McCullough recovered a fumble forced by Brade when SMU had plowed inside the 5-yard line.

Eventually, with the game on the line, the Terps discovered the poise to close out the Mustangs.

“It showed in clutch moments that we stepped up to the plate and didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, but 15 is a lot," Brade said, referring to the team’s number of penalties. “We’ve got to figure that out.”