Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown looks to pass in the first half. He was sharp at the start, but couldn’t keep the Terrapins from letting the lead slip away. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)

Maryland football Coach Randy Edsall kept his offense on the field for fourth down, because if it couldn’t pick up one yard it didn’t deserve to win Saturday’s game against Rutgers. The Terrapins had the ball on the Scarlet Knights 36-yard line with precisely one minute to play, trailing by three points, and its once-jubilant Senior Day had crumbled to a critical choice: Kick a 54-yard field goal attempt to tie, or try to convert to keep the drive alive and go for the win.

The play was a run to the right out of the shotgun formation. Running back Brandon Ross knew he didn’t have it the moment he was cut down by a Rutgers defender. He rose to his feet and stared at the jumbotron, hoping it would tell a different story. It didn’t. Saturday’s 41-38 loss, after wasting a 25-point lead, will burn slowly, and deep.

“You can always look back and say you could have called this or could have called that. They are always good calls if the plays are executed,” Edsall said of the decision-making on the final drive.

The Terrapins had an opportunity to win eight games for the first time under Edsall. They could have considerably improved their bowl résumé, and capped a Big Ten season of overachievement. Instead must answer questions: How a 35-10 lead late in the second quarter could suddenly fade into the ether, and Maryland’s jovial late-season spirit right along with it.

“I wish I could tell you,” linebacker L.A. Goree said. “It was a tough game.”

Rutgers place kicker Kyle Federico nails the game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Terrapins’ offense was bipolar Saturday, while its defense allowed Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova to throw for 347 yards and four touchdowns and lead scoring drives on five of his team’s final seven possessions. Maryland gained just 143 yards in the second half, committed 10 penalties, gave up nearly 500 yards and allowed three Rutgers receivers to eclipse 100 yards.

The regular season finale between the schools was billed as the beginning of a new rivalry, and Edsall had said earlier this week that he would support a push to create an annual trophy game with the Scarlet Knights. It also marked the return of Ralph Friedgen, the longtime Maryland coach who was back in College Park as offensive coordinator for Rutgers, four years after his bitter exit. But the environment was sleepy for much of afternoon before an announced crowd of 36,673, the smallest at Byrd Stadium this season.

Maryland’s offense wasn’t lacking energy, however, in together its best first half of the season. Quarterback C.J. Brown engineered a 11-play, 66-yard opening drive capped by his one-yard touchdown run. Two drives later he slipped a quick slant to sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo that went 71 yards for a touchdown.

“Everything was there. I was making the right reads, I was making the right checks, and just playing football,” said Brown, who finished with 197 yards passing and 107 rushing.

Ross followed a nine-yard touchdown run with a 40-yard run for a score midway through the second quarter to give Maryland a commanding 28-10 lead and signal a return of the home-run ability that had gone missing the second half of the season.

Maryland (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) paid tribute to Friedgen with a short message on the video board early in the first half. Shortly after it ran a montage of memorable moments in the program’s history, with many of the clips coming from the archives of Friedgen’s tenure. But after Brown hit Deon Long to make it 35-10 with less than three minutes left in the half, Friedgen helped design a highlight reel for Rutgers (7-5, 3-5), which embarked on the biggest comeback in its program’s history.

Nova orchestrated a critical 13-play, 77-yard drive, hitting Andre Patton on a tight one-yard out to make it 35-17 with nine seconds left in the half.

Edsall clapped with confidence as he walked off the field for halftime, but it was the beginning of the collapse. Janorian Grant returned the second-half kickoff 71 yards, and three plays later Rutgers running back Robert Martin punched in a one-yard touchdown run to make it 35-24.

Maryland had 333 yards of total offense in the first half, 230 of which Brown accounted for. But Brown and the offense stalled in the second half, while Nova went 14-of-16 passing for 196 yards and two touchdowns. One of best throws of the night came on a play-action rollout, creating just enough time to hit Leonte Carroo in the back of the end zone to make it 35-31.

“He got the ball to his receivers in places where they could make plays,” Maryland cornerback Jeremiah Johnson said.

Edsall sent junior Brad Craddock out for a 50-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, and he extended the lead to seven after drilling his 24th consecutive kick. That tied the Big Ten record — but it also allowed the Scarlet Knights to stay within striking distance. Nova needed just seven plays to drive his team 71 yards, hitting Patton in the back right corner of the end zone on third and eight from the Maryland 10 to tie the game on the first play of the fourth quarter.

After Rutgers took a 41-38 lead with 6 minutes 18 seconds left, Maryland netted just 14 yards on the ensuing drive and sent Craddock out for a 54-yard attempt. It sailed wide left for his first miss of the season.

The Terrapins were gifted with another shot two plays later, when linebacker Cole Farrand forced a Rutgers fumble and Keith Bowers scooped it up at the Rutgers 45-yard line. Brown gained seven yards on a first-down run, but Rutgers — which entered the day ranked second to last in the Big Ten in total defense — held to set up a fourth-and-one call. Ross, who finished the game with 10 carries for 108 yards, was tackled immediately by a Rutgers blitz.

“That’s what hurts the most, the fact that we had the game in hand,” he said. “We just had to finish it.”