Virginia players leave the field dejected as Maryland clinches its 27-26 win on Saturday. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)

As the Virginia football team’s buses rolled down Route 29 on Saturday night, headed back to campus after a nail-biting loss to Maryland, the silence was only broken up by the rain falling outside and sobs of players.

As teammates cried on the defensive bus, freshman Donte Wilkins turned in his chair to see fellow lineman Eli Harold “heartbroken” in the row behind him, a look of shock on his face at what had transpired in College Park hours earlier. It was unlike anything Wilkins, an All-Met from Potomac (Va.) High, had witnessed before.

“We’re still not over it. The bitter taste is still in our mouth,” he said Monday. “It’ll probably be in our mouth until the end of the season. We just want to keep working hard and remember those losses, remember how they feel so we don’t get them again.”

The memories will always conjure up something painful, a dilemma the Cavaliers must confront this week with their season on the brink of disaster after three consecutive losses and a winnable game against Duke looming this weekend.

Cavaliers players are keenly aware of how last year’s campaign was ruined by a mid-season swoon, and with a daunting schedule the rest of the way, there is little time to get over how close they came to celebrating a much-needed victory.

Moving past this latest defeat will be a challenge, and it goes beyond the 47-yard fourth-quarter heave that Maryland wide receiver Deon Long caught over two Virginia defenders or the potential game-winning 42-yard field attempt that sailed wide right with 10 seconds remaining.

Before those moments, Virginia had shown the sort of progress fans had been clamoring about for weeks, churning out 242 rushing yards behind a new-look offensive line that faced a defense that entered last weekend as one of the nation’s best at stuffing the run. Quarterback David Watford, meanwhile, played “his best game to date,” according to Coach Mike London.

“I believe things will turn,” he said of the team. “I believe in the progress that we’ve seen here offensively.”

That, though, was offset by an inability to turn first downs — Virginia finished the game with 506 total yards — into touchdowns. The Cavaliers drove into the red zone six times Saturday and settled for four field goals, including a sequence in the first quarter in which they were stopped twice at the 1-yard-line. Their defense continued to regress after an encouraging start to the season.

And with each loss comes more scrutiny about London’s long-term future as the face of the program. This week, his decision to run the ball three times once Virginia got into the outer portion of backup place kicker Alec Vozenilek’s field goal range on its final drive has been met with widespread criticism from fans.

London has since defended the move, noting “we would do it again” because of concerns about ball security and the fact that Vozenilek had hit plenty of 42-yard field goals in the past during practice. Watford stood behind his coach Monday.

“It bothers me to hear people criticizing his decision making. It bothers me when people criticize [offensive coordinator Steve] Fairchild’s decision making as well,” Watford said. “I kind of understand their thinking and rationale, but people from the outside don’t understand what all goes into their decisions. They don’t see what we do in practice.”

Watford sat in the back of Virginia’s silent offensive bus Saturday night, headphones on his ears, as he watched film from the game that had just transpired. In between snaps, he couldn’t help but wonder about what could’ve been and how his team will move forward from here.

“That taste is something we just ahve to keep in the back of our heads. Just losing, and how we’re that close,” Watford said. “We really were that close to winning that game and that could’ve been the turning point in the season, that spark that we needed to get us on the right path.”