MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As the members of the Maryland football team trudged into the bowels of Mountaineer Field for postgame interviews Saturday, each reiterated the same basic frustration, the anger at missed opportunities and an upset that scurried away each time the Terrapins came close.
Maryland had come close to toppling heavily favored border rival West Virginia. Freshman quarterback Perry Hills had a career day, throwing three touchdown passes. Two were to fellow freshman Stefon Diggs, the first coming after he launched his body into the end zone from about five yards out.
But the Terrapins also lost two fumbles and allowed five sacks. They blew coverage against a Mountaineers offense ranked among the nation’s best. Three touchdowns by West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin, a Baltimore native and frequent Terrapins tormenter, sealed their fate.
The end result was a 31-21 win for the eighth-ranked Mountaineers, their seventh straight win over a Maryland team that is taking no solace in mere progress.
“There are no moral victories,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “We lost, and it takes another chunk out of you.”
Still, the anticipated rout by West Virginia — whose quarterback, Heisman Trophy candidate Geno Smith, pilots the vaunted “Air Raid” offense — never materialized. The Mountaineers had their moments, with Smith finding Austin 13 times for 179 yards, but they also punted seven times and were held scoreless in a quarter for the first time since late last season.
Maryland overcame a 14-0 deficit by the second quarter after two touchdown passes by Hills, who turned in by far the strongest effort of his inaugural season, finishing with a career-high 305 yards and the three touchdowns.
“That doesn’t matter to me,” Hills said. “Just winning. Winning’s the biggest thing. Doesn’t matter if I hand the ball off 80 times and we win, or we throw 100 times and we win. I don’t care about the numbers. But we lost, so it definitely doesn’t matter right now.”
Maryland never led but came close, thanks in part to a few more scintillating plays by Diggs. The true freshman had three receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns, including a 56-yarder that cut the Terrapins’ deficit to 10 points midway through the fourth quarter.
“It was an all-right day,” Diggs said. “You can always do better. We had a lot of big plays on offense, but some got away from us.
“They were a great team. That tells you we’re not far off on our goals, what we’re trying to do here. We’ve got a young team that hopefully each week we get better.”
Maryland has indeed made strides since an uninspiring 7-6 win over William & Mary in the season opener. Diggs, as always, was electric. Running back Brandon Ross and linebacker Kenny Tate each made their season debuts and at times made contributions. Hills played confidently, even after his first-quarter fumble — caused by a perfectly timed safety blitz — was returned for a touchdown and a blind-side crack block after a blown whistle had him gasping for air just before halftime.
“When you get around Perry, and you see his demeanor and his competitiveness and his heart and his passion and his ability to be a team guy, you just know a guy like that is going to rebound from some setbacks,” Edsall said. “That’s the thing. He’s a tough guy. I thought he went out and for the most part did a good job of executing the game plan.”
Aside from their inability to stop Austin, who has 407 receiving yards and five touchdowns in three career games against Maryland, the Terrapins played well defensively. Coordinator Brian Stewart’s unit sacked Smith twice and swarmed West Virginia’s other receivers to limit the big plays. Smith had more incompletions Saturday (13) than he did in West Virginia’s first two games combined (nine).
“We definitely got after the quarterback,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said. “I feel like we put him under a lot of pressure, got a lot of hits on him. But we let them get a few big plays. They didn’t have too many total yards, not more than our offense, but we just let them get more touchdowns.”
A West Virginia offense that averaged 55 points and 612 yards through its first two games was held to 24 and 338 by Maryland, including just 25 rushing yards. The Mountaineers had 13 plays of at least 10 yards, but only four in the second half. Yet one of those four went for a 34-yard touchdown pass to Austin that put them up 31-14 midway through the fourth quarter. The Terrapins gambled on a blitz, and Austin sprung free into an open secondary.
“We may have been able to stop them, but those three or four plays they did get, they won the game off those,” said Maryland defensive lineman A.J. Francis, who became the first player this season to sack Smith. “We didn’t do a good enough job. Now we go into the bye week 2-2. Could have pulled this one out, could have pulled out last week, could be 4-0.
“Ifs and buts, right?”