ATLANTA — Andrew Gonnella, Maryland’s starting left guard and one of four co-captains, lay on the football field for nearly 15 minutes after suffering a knee injury so gruesome ESPNU refused to replay it on the television broadcast. Flanked by medical staff, teammates and school officials, Gonnella relayed a message to teammates through his head coach before being whisked away in an ambulance:
“Make sure we punch this in.”
As one of Maryland’s emotional leaders was en route to Grady Medical Center, the Terrapins embraced the words of their injured senior, finishing off a touchdown-scoring drive that created late-game drama in a matchup many expected to be a laugher. Maryland ultimately fell short, losing 21-16 to 13th-ranked Georgia Tech on Saturday, but the wild game that unfolded here before a less-than-capacity crowd at Bobby Dodd Stadium could prove to be a pivotal moment in Coach Randy Edsall’s first season.
Offensively, Edsall replaced starting quarterback Danny O’Brien, last season’s ACC rookie of the year, with sophomore C.J. Brown after four series. Brown displayed a deft and effective scrambling ability — including a 77-yard touchdown run — but generated little success in the passing game.
Defensively, the Terrapins (2-3, 1-1 ACC) turned in an inspired effort after struggling through most of the season. A defense that started four freshmen held the Yellow Jackets’ prolific triple-option attack to 386 total yards — 200 less than their average — and 21 points — 30 less than their average.
What it all will mean in a season that has already featured its share of adversity remains to be seen because the end result was a third loss, a quarterback controversy that is not likely to be resolved anytime soon and more significant injuries to a team that has already been decimated by them.
Senior linebacker Kenny Tate did not play Saturday because of an undisclosed injury suffered within the past week. Junior linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield left the game early in the third quarter with an apparent lower-body injury. And the injury to Gonnella, who is tied for the most starts on the Terrapins’ offense (26), will linger as the most sobering moment
“There’s not words to describe what he brings to the team,” Brown said. “He is our leader. He is our captain. It fired us up. It was tough.”
An encouraging sign for Maryland came from the defense, which played its best game of the season. The unit intercepted one pass (cornerback Dexter McDougle), forced five punts and stopped Georgia Tech on downs once. And on two of Georgia Tech’s touchdown drives, the Yellow Jackets took possession inside Maryland’s 35-yard line.
The Terrapins accomplished this against an offense that had amassed gaudy statistics entering the game, with eight one-play touchdown drives and nine plays of 70 or more yards this season.
When asked what specifically his defensive players did well, Edsall said: “I thought they did what they were coached to do. They went out and executed the game plan that the defensive coaches put together. You do that, that’s what happens.”
Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington completed just 6 of 19 passes and threw his second interception of the season. Afterward, Washington said, “The guy I was reading most of the day did a good job of making me miss some reads.”
Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson said his offense “really struggled” and that “they whipped our tail pretty good in the end.” He also said some struggles were self-inflicted in the second half because “there was a penalty, a missed read, somebody loose; it was a fiasco. Third down in the second half was awful.”
Offensively, the question of who is best suited to quarterback Maryland’s offense moving forward will linger for some time in College Park. Before being replaced in the second quarter, O’Brien completed 1 of 6 passes for 17 yards and one interception.
Edsall said he inserted Brown in search of an offensive “spark.” Brown completed 4 of 17 passes for 36 yards and also had one interception. The positive was his mobility. He ran for 124 yards on nine carries, which included a fake handoff that even fooled the stadium’s public-address announcer on a 77-yard scoring run that put Maryland back in the game after trailing 21-3.
Edsall said he would evaluate both quarterbacks on tape before commenting further on how they may be used in next week’s game against No. 8 Clemson. O’Brien was not made available to reporters afterward.
Regarding his comfort level in the passing game, Brown said: “I know the passing game in and out just like I am supposed to. It may not have showed today, but I know I was making the correct reads. Maybe the ball was not there on time, or I was a little off, but I will get better week to week.”
But the struggle in the passing game against a defense that had given up points in bunches was alarming. After all, wide receiver Tony Logan accounted for 34 of Maryland’s 87 passing yards when he passed the ball to Kevin Dorsey after receiving a lateral. Brown and O’Brien combined for a pass efficiency rating of 23.7.
And despite all that, the Terrapins, who committed just one penalty for five yards, were in position to win the game in the final minutes. But Brown threw incomplete on third and fourth down at the Maryland 46.
That left players saddened by the loss of a game. But, win or lose, they were already emotionally jarred by the loss of one of their most respected teammates.
“He’s my roommate, one of my best friends,” defensive tackle Joe Vellano (20 tackles) said of Gonnella. “It’s crazy how it can happen to anyone that quick. It’s bad.”