For Maryland, there was a perpetual sense Saturday of trying desperately to hang on — to Georgia Tech ball carriers, to the game, and to a season the Terps hoped would not begin to slip away.
Starting four freshmen on defense, the Terps held Georgia Tech’s potent offense to less than half its scoring average and almost came back from an 18-point deficit before falling, 21-16, in front of an announced crowd of 45,905 on a sunny, windy day at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Maryland (2-3, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) got a 77-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run and 124 rushing yards from speedy quarterback C.J. Brown — who replaced starter Danny O’Brien — but couldn’t complete its comeback against the No. 13 Yellow Jackets (6-0, 3-0 ACC).
Maryland coach Randy Edsall said he was disappointed to lose, but encouraged by a defense that held the run-happy Yellow Jackets — who had been averaging 51.6 points and 378 rushing yards per game — scoreless for the final 27 minutes.
“I thought they did what they were coached to do,” Edsall said of his injury-plagued defense.
The Terps said they were inspired by left guard Andrew Gonnella — a team captain and the offensive line’s only senior — who suffered a gruesome leg injury and was taken by ambulance to a local hospital midway through the fourth quarter.
Players said Gonnella, who raised his arm and waved from the gurney, relayed a message to the team through Edsall. Trailing 21-10, the Terps were driving when Gonnella went down, prompting a delay of about 15 minutes. Edsall, athletic director Kevin Anderson and others came onto the field to check on the player.
“He told Coach, ‘Make sure they get down there, make sure we punch this in,’“ said Brown who helped lead Maryland to a touchdown a few minutes later. “I think we kind of stepped up. It was tough to see.”
O’Brien, last season’s ACC rookie of the year, was replaced in the second quarter by Brown and spent the second half on the sideline wearing a headset and signaling to the offense.
Maryland offensive coordinator Gary Crowton had said before the season that he thought Brown, an athletic former high school basketball player whose 2010 season ended when he broke his collarbone, was among the best quarterbacks in the ACC even as a backup. He also said he didn’t like pulling quarterbacks in and out of games.
Edsall said Brown “gave us a spark,” but he did not publicly speculate on who might start at quarterback next week against Clemson.
“We’ll just watch the film and evaluate it from there,” Edsall said.
Maryland trailed 21-3 early in the fourth quarter when Brown, who didn’t complete a pass until the fourth quarter and finished 4-for-17 for 36 yards, took off and raced 77 yards — the longest touchdown run against Georgia Tech since 2002.
The Terps closed to 21-16 on Davin Meggett’s 1-yard run with 7:33 remaining. A two-point conversion attempt failed.
Following a punt, Maryland took over on its 19 with a chance for the lead. But Brown’s third-down pass was batted down, and his fourth-down pass from Maryland’s 46-yard-line missed Kerry Boykins deep. The Yellow Jackets took over with 2:31 left and ran out the clock.
After Brown made appearances in the previous two games, Edsall said he simply wanted to get the backup some experience. But this was clearly something different.
Brown began throwing on the sideline with Maryland trailing 14-3 in the second quarter. O’Brien was 1-for-6 for 17 yards at the time.
“I felt relaxed after that first hit,” said Brown, who ran for seven yards on his first play. “We were closer in that game than it looked.”
Maryland had managed to avoid Georgia Tech on the schedule since 2007. Edsall and his predecessor, Ralph Friedgen, are both former Georgia Tech assistants. Friedgen, dismissed by Maryland after last season, joked in a recent radio interview that he was “flying a Georgia Tech flag.”
Despite entering the game as a two-touchdown underdog, Maryland got some breaks.
Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington, who completed just four passes in last week’s win over N.C. State, missed an open Roddy Jones deep down the sideline in the first quarter. He just missed an open Stephen Hill deep in the second quarter. But the quarterback finished with 120 yards rushing on 32 carries and two touchdowns.
“Offensively we struggled, never got any continuity,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, the former Navy coach. “It was a myriad of things.”
Georgia Tech, which has scored on its first possession in every game this season, drove 63 yards for a touchdown on its initial series.
Maryland tried to run the ball early to control the clock and keep Georgia Tech’s offense off the field. Maryland’s second possession went 14 plays — 12 of them runs — resulting in a 30-yard Nick Ferrara field goal that cut the deficit to 7-3.
Maryland finished with a season-high 246 yards rushing.
But injuries continued to be a concer for the Terps’ defense. They also lost linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield, who had to be helped off the field in the third quarter. He remained on the sideline with an ice pack attached above his left ankle. Linebacker Kenny Tate did not play because of an undisclosed injury.
The Terps were already starting four first-year players on defense.
“No time for them to be young anymore,” said defensive tackle Joe Vellano, who had a career-high 20 tackles, the most by a Terp since Dave Philistin’s 21 against Georgia Tech in 2007.
“We were pleased with how hard our guys played for 60 minutes,” Edsall said. “I would hope that we would take a step forward.”