As Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell designed his game plan for the season opener at Texas during the offseason, he was haunted by Longhorns first-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and what had happened when the two men last met on a field three years earlier.
Bell was in his first year calling plays at Arkansas State, and Orlando was serving as Utah State’s defensive coordinator; both were on the cusp of becoming bright young stars in college football when the two teams played in late September 2014.
What mattered less was that Arkansas State overcame four turnovers and won, 21-14, in overtime; Orlando had out-coached Bell and forced him to make a slew of schematic changes in his offensive philosophy. When the two men met again last weekend in Austin, Bell was reminded of that pivotal moment in his coaching career — and he was more than prepared.
His offense amassed 482 yards on just 58 plays in the 51-41 win, which marked the most points Maryland has scored against a ranked opponent and announced Bell’s up-tempo, perimeter-attacking scheme as one fully capable of dominating at the line of scrimmage and generating big plays.
“I really thought that [Arkansas State-Utah State] game in 2014 helped craft and prepare this plan, just as much as anything else,” Bell said, tracing the origins of an offensive game plan that helped bring Maryland its first win over a ranked team since 2010 and its first such victory on the road since 2008.
The offensive statistics were staggering: Maryland gained 263 yards rushing on 43 carries and 219 yards passing on just 15 attempts, manufactured seven plays of 20 yards or more — including on four of the team’s six offensive touchdowns — and gained 281 yards on first downs alone.
Maybe more impressive was that efficiency never wavered despite quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome’s first pass getting intercepted and returned for a touchdown and his departure on the last play of the third quarter with a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. Before leaving, Pigrome accounted for 241 total yards and three touchdowns. He was replaced by true freshman Kasim Hill, and the offense didn’t miss a beat as Hill, who will assume the starting duties for the rest of the season, made a string of plays in the fourth quarter to help seal the win.
“That was a big day for us, I would think even at our own expectation level, especially at the quarterback position. I thought those guys played a really solid game. We did not ask a ton of those guys. You can kind of look at the run-pass stuff and know that,” Bell said.
As impressive as Maryland’s stars were offensively — aside from Hill and Pigrome, junior running back Ty Johnson ran for 132 yards and junior wide receiver DJ Moore caught seven passes for 133 yards — the anatomy of this upset began in the trenches. Maryland’s offensive line — with four returning starters who have added considerable bulk after giving up 49 sacks a year ago and struggling to get push against top competition in the Big Ten — allowed just one sack against the Longhorns and showed their athleticism in running Bell’s complex zone-read scheme on the perimeter.
“We know the type of offense we run. We know defensive coordinators. They’re going to try to throw types of blitzes, zone blitzes. They’re going to try to stem our fronts,” Maryland junior tackle Damian Prince said. “You really just have to really hone in.”
Maryland Coach DJ Durkin could point to so many factors in his team’s breakthrough win as he held his weekly news conference Tuesday — including the resilience through the injuries of Pigrome and senior defensive end Jesse Aniebonam, who will miss several months after fracturing his ankle in the third quarter — but a centerpiece of this win was also how Maryland performed in the trenches on defense and special teams.
That included a blocked field goal in the second quarter by starting offensive tackle Derwin Gray — who was just moved to special teams a month ago — that set up a 71-yard touchdown return for sophomore Antoine Brooks.
“We are a better-looking team up front than we were a year ago. And I’m talking about with the same guys. They’ve developed better, transformed their bodies,” said Durkin, who hired former Fordham offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen to coach the offensive line and former Kentucky assistant Jimmy Brumbaugh to oversee the defensive line during the offseason. “They understand the scheme better, so they have a better understanding for what they’re doing.”
The defense not only endured 84 plays, but it also held Texas to just 98 yards rushing on 31 attempts and recorded five sacks and eight tackles for loss. That production came on the heels of what Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh called “simulated pressure” — Maryland disguised blitzes and rushed four on 90 percent of its calls, rotating as many as eight players along the defensive line.
“We’re always going to attack the offense. It’s always going to be something we do but doing it in a smart way,” Buh said.
Buh’s defense only allowed two touchdowns, and while Texas exposed Maryland with a defensive touchdown and another two scores off special teams blunders, the Longhorns’ 41 points simply weren’t enough to keep up with Bell’s game plan.
The most rewarding drive netted minus-seven yards in the waning seconds, when Bell told Hill to get the offense into the victory formation and take two knees to seal the program’s biggest win in seven years.
“The best formation in football,” Prince said. “It just felt great, just to know that we have a fresh start.”