COLUMBUS, Ohio — Maryland Coach Randy Edsall shook hands with each of his players before Saturday’s game at Ohio State, not knowing if it would be for the last time. About four hours later, after Maryland stiffened against the nation’s top-ranked team, then finally broke in a 49-28 loss, Edsall arrived at a cramped press room in the bowels of famed Ohio Stadium, ready to address the turmoil surrounding his future.
He said he hadn’t heard from school administrators about possibly being fired, and that he planned to get on the bus with the team and watch film like he always had. His voice wavered at times, and his eyes were watery. He finally raised his voice after he was asked about shaking his players’ hands.
“I do that every single game. Every single game! Out of the respect I have for these kids and what they go through,” Edsall said through a clenched jaw. “Every single game!” He then rose to his feet and stormed out of the room. A few supporters in the back clapped in his favor, the potential death rattle of Edsall’s tenure in College Park.
It appears likely Saturday will be remembered as the final game of Edsall’s five-season tenure with Maryland, after several days of reports detailing his imperiled job status amid eroding support from fans and donors. Edsall’s record in College Park fell to 22-34, including 0-12 against top-25 teams. But the coach and his players stood defiant for much of the afternoon against the defending national champion. An audience of nearly 108,000 people in one of college football’s cathedrals was stunned to silence after the Terrapins tied the game early in the third quarter. For a while, the unthinkable seemed possible.
That was partly due to junior quarterback Perry Hills, who attacked Ohio State’s defense with his rugged mobility all afternoon. Edsall simply called him a “warrior” after he rushed for 170 yards, a single-game record for a Maryland quarterback, and two touchdowns.
“We just saw a great opportunity and we wanted to take advantage of it,” said Hills, who was named the starter just before kickoff after spending the three previous games as Maryland’s third-stringer. “You don’t get a bigger stage than this.”
It looked as if Ohio State was going to run away with the game just before halftime, but kicker Jack Willoughby shanked a 44-yard field goal attempt that would’ve given the Buckeyes a 24-7 lead. Hills responded by ripping off a 75-yard run through the heart of Ohio State’s defense and pulled Maryland within a touchdown after a three-yard keeper on the next play.
Hills’s mobility was far more effective than his arm Saturday. He completed 10 of 27 passes for 133 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Nonetheless, Maryland’s offense came alive for the first time in three weeks. The play-calling looked inventive and fresh. The ingenuity on offense included reverses and cunning play-action passes — and even featured cornerback Will Likely at one point in the third quarter, when his eight-yard jet-sweep helped set up another Hills touchdown to tie the game at 21.
As Hills flourished, it seemed perplexing that he was pulled as the starter after two starts earlier this season.
But even as Maryland (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) showed offensive life for the first time in weeks, it couldn’t win the foot race against Ohio State’s spread attack. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, a Heisman Trophy candidate who rushed for 274 yards and three touchdowns last week at Indiana, was largely held in check and finished with 106 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries against the Terps. But while Maryland focused on containing one star, it was spread too thin in the second half in dealing with the others.
“It hurts for people to say, ‘Yeah you guys did good for three quarters,’ ” Maryland linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr said. “But the end result was not good at all.”
Reality finally set in midway through the third quarter, when quarterback Cardale Jones found Jalin Marshall for a 48-yard touchdown to give Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) the lead for good. The Buckeyes found their rhythm while splitting reps under center between Jones and J.T. Barrett, whose one-yard touchdown run with 15 seconds left in the third quarter made it a two-score game.
Jones completed 21 of 28 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns. Barrett mostly hurt Maryland with his legs, rushing for 62 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries.
Picking up four first downs with his legs on the ensuing drive, including on a crucial fourth-and-eight call, Hills drove Maryland to the Ohio State 36-yard line. But he was sacked on fourth and 14, effectively ending Maryland’s chances to deliver Edsall the upset of a lifetime. Ohio State scored on its next two drives, aided by two interceptions by Hills as Maryland entered desperation mode.
The ultimately decisive result could ease any hesitation among some fans and donors who have been pushing for Edsall’s ouster.
“I’m not really worried about that . . . I’m here to play defense. Whoever is the coach, I’m going to play my hardest for him,” defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson said.
After Edsall swiped his water bottle and talking points from the table at the abrupt end of his postgame news conference, Hills took the seat to provide a few somber remarks. It was Edsall who recruited him out of Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh over four years ago, and Hills was forced to block out the noise surrounding his coach as he prepared this week. He got another chance to prove himself, but it remains to be seen if Edsall will.