As the Maryland football team sunk deeper and deeper into the doldrums last season, crushed by injuries and plagued by offensive stagnancy, wide receiver Stefon Diggs was a bright light. He turned short screen passes into dazzling touchdown runs. His shimmying jukes and whirling-dervish spin moves had defenders snatching the air. He brought, in a word, hope.
Midway through the second quarter of Maryland’s 47-10 bruising of Old Dominion on Saturday, Diggs proved he can still enthrall Byrd Stadium as a sophomore. He took a swing pass from C.J. Brown, shook the initial coverage, stiff-armed another defender and broke down the sideline. A third defensive back barreled over. Diggs began his trademark high step, freezing the defensive back in place. As he approached the end zone, Diggs somersaulted head-over-heels into the end zone — just because he could.
“I’m still young,” Diggs said. “Hopefully I’ll have better games. I think it was an okay game. I didn’t look at the stats that much, but I’m thinking I had an okay game.”
Everything Saturday afternoon came with similar ease and panache for the Terrapins (2-0) against the Monarchs, who are transitioning up a level into the Football Bowl Subdivision. Maryland running back Brandon Ross rumbled for a career-high 149 yards, finding minimal resistance. A new-look dime defense, ready for a chess match against Old Dominion’s spread offense, pressured quarterback Taylor Heinicke into three first-half interceptions. Maryland had 392 yards by intermission, including 148 through the air to Diggs. It never trailed.
Through two games, the potency of this Maryland offense has stemmed from its diversity. Aside from a wide-open touchdown catch in last weekend’s opener against Florida International, Diggs’s production was limited. The Terps didn’t need him — or Ross — as quarterback C.J. Brown accounted for five touchdowns and wide receiver Deon Long topped 100 yards in his Maryland debut. They were the headliners. Everyone else played the supporting cast.
“I think what happens is, people that we play, they have to decide who they’re going to take away or whatever they’re going to do,” Coach Randy Edsall said.
Saturday brought a similar script, albeit with different stars. On Maryland’s second drive, Ross took an option pitch and plunged in from five yards. Then, after Sean Davis’s interception return, Diggs chose to hasten the inevitable. His 41-yard leaping grab set up Brown’s five-yard touchdown. After Ross got the Terps into Old Dominion territory two possessions later, Diggs flipped his way past the pylon for another score. His 179 receiving yards set a career high.
“With all the weapons we have, anyone can shine on any given day,” Ross said. “That’s really how you want it. I was happy to have a good game today, but it could be different next week.”
Heinicke, who broke a Division I record last year with 730 passing yards against New Hampshire, was pressured into rare mistakes. Cornerback Dexter McDougle stayed home, an unusual ploy for defensive coordinator Brian Stewart as Maryland disguised its pass rushes to counter Heinicke’s pre-snap reads. If one defensive back showed blitz before the snap, he backed off, and another came from the opposite side.
The result? An uncharacteristically shaken Monarchs signal-caller, winner of the 2012 Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. The Terps converted Heinicke’s three interceptions — by Davis, Isaac Goins and freshman Yannick Ngakoue — into 10 points. Heinicke’s afternoon ended just before halftime with his lowest passing total (166) since Oct. 1, 2011.
“I’m glad our kids played the way they did,” Edsall said, “because he’s outstanding.”
Brown, however, continued to shred Old Dominion’s defense in the second half, juking a would-be tackler on a 31-yard touchdown run that made it 38-3. His day, along with the other starters, ended after a four-yard touchdown pass to Nigel King gave Maryland consecutive 40-point games to start the season for the first time in program history and another session of Diggs highlights to file into the vault.
“He’s a crazy kid,” Brown said, laughing. “He’s crazy talented. Like I said, put the ball in his hands on a little go screen and he takes it the distance. It’s always exciting.”