CHARLOTTESVILLE — Early Saturday morning, hours before their ACC road opener at Virginia, Maryland’s football players packed into a spacious, white-walled hotel ballroom and heard their coach preach a familiar refrain.
“Start fast, finish strong,” Randy Edsall told the Terrapins.
Throughout the offseason, they spoke of finishing games, of installing some semblance of a killer’s mentality. And at some point, Maryland will learn to navigate the middle quarters with greater ease, to finish off its opponent early.
This should suffice for now. The Terrapins defeated the Cavaliers, 27-20, as another late surge by an opponent was blunted by a true freshman quarterback who bends but never breaks and a sturdy defense that, for one afternoon, did the same. The Terrapins (4-2, 2-0) moved two games above .500 and one game closer to a previously unthinkable bowl bid.
“To finish it off the way we did, outscoring the team in the fourth quarter, making plays we needed to make, that’s what this program is all about,” Edsall said. “Playing hard each and every play, never saying die, keep battling and imposing your will on people.”
Ranked seventh nationally in yards allowed per game, Maryland’s defense struggled to get push against Virginia’s massive offensive line, allowing a season-high 168 rushing yards. Midway through the fourth quarter, however, linebacker Darin Drakeford hunted down Cavaliers quarterback Phillip Sims from behind. Defensive lineman A.J. Francis pounced on the loose ball and Brad Craddock drilled a 28-yard field goal from the right hash mark, giving Maryland its final points.
But Michael Rocco, who replaced Sims on Virginia’s ensuing drive, threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jake McGee to make it a one-possession game. With 1 minute 51 seconds left, the Cavaliers (2-5, 0-3) then gained possession just beyond midfield following a Maryland three-and-out. Rocco overthrew his target on first down. Isaac Goins broke up a third-down rocket. A fourth-down heave fluttered harmlessly downfield, and a massive Scott Stadium exodus served as the backdrop for Maryland’s victory formation.
“To be a great team, you’ve got to be a fourth-quarter team,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said. “No matter what level you’re at, no matter what sport it is. It just shows how great of a defense we can be.”
For as many mistakes Maryland quarterback Perry Hills has made through his first six games — all the fumbles and missed reads — the freshman from Pittsburgh has been steadiest late in games. He acted like a fullback Saturday, bulldozing Virginia’s defenders and scoring what proved to be the deciding points with a six-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Through six games, Maryland has outscored opponents by 20 points in the game’s final period.
“It’s a great treat, that you want in a quarterback, a guy who can finish,” Edsall said. “That’s the one thing, he’s been able to make the plays in the fourth quarter. He doesn’t get flustered.”
Despite his pregame speech, Edsall never imagined the Terrapins would start as fast as they did Saturday. On the game’s opening kickoff, Stefon Diggs fielded a boomer five yards into the end zone and, perhaps for the first time in his electric freshman season at Maryland, stood still. He surveyed the landscape, a flood of blue jerseys barreling downfield, while inching forward, cradling the football in one arm, pointing out his blocks with the other. Or maybe he was calling his shot.
On the sideline, Edsall began thinking “no, no, no.” He wanted a touchback. But with a powerful first step, Diggs took off down the sideline, 45,556 shoulders slumping with each stride. Edsall quickly changed his mind. A teenage speedster among slow-motion defenders, Diggs sprinted untouched, sapping the energy out of a homecoming crowd whose team was down 7-0 before many even had time to blink.
“He’s going to be one of the greatest players to ever come through here,” Drakeford said. “Him with the ball is simply amazing. When you look at it, he looks like he’s jogging. And then he’s in the end zone.”
Maryland’s Anthony Nixon, a true freshman starting in place of injured safety Matt Robinson, picked off Sims on third and long on Virginia’s ensuing drive. Five plays later, from 20 yards out following a 60-yard Diggs catch-and-run, Hills stared down an oncoming blitz, checked down to running back Justus Pickett and let the sophomore do the rest. Pickett, who finished with minus-eight rushing yards on 15 carries, juked one defender on the outside and, like Diggs, trotted into the end zone untouched.
Trading punts early in the second half, Virginia cut its deficit to 17-10 on a 20-yard laser from Sims to a sliding E.J. Scott. A chip-shot field goal from Ian Frye with 29 seconds left in the third quarter got the Cavaliers within four points, 17-13. But a personal foul penalty on the attempt gave Diggs room to work on the ensuing kickoff. The freshman sprinted past midfield, setting up the drive that ended with Hills’s touchdown, another stamp from Maryland’s unflappable quarterback, another signature win for a team that in 2011 let such games slip away.