If they were going to win their first bowl game in three years, the Terps understood the risk of getting into a shootout. So Maryland tried to run the ball, control the clock and keep Cato on the sideline throughout the Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
But ultimately, the Terps couldn't stop Cato from hoisting the bowl's Most Valuable Player trophy over his head in the early-evening chill after a 31-20 loss before an announced 30,163 in Annapolis.
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Maryland's strategy succeeded, to a degree. The Terps produced a 17-play, 99-yard drive — their best of the season and longest in the bowl's young history — but Cato finished with 337 passing yards and three touchdown passes. Two of the scoring strikes went to tight end Gator Hoskins, who burned Maryland with 104 receiving yards and who leads all tight ends nationally with 15 touchdown catches.
“We felt that, as fast as they were going, we wanted to control the clock,” Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. “The problem we had was we got down into the red zone and ended up kicking some field goals rather than getting touchdowns.”
Maryland might have held the ball longer Friday — 33 minutes, 22 seconds in time of possession, to the Thundering Herd's 26:38 — but that was mostly because Marshall simply didn't need as much time to score.
As they celebrated the Herd's first 10-win season since 2002, green-clad fans chanted, “We are Marshall,” and hung around to watch a beaming Cato receive his trophy after the Terps had slowly exited the field.
“I tell the guys all the time, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Cato said.
Maryland was hampered by poor field position. Marshall punter Tyler Williams four times pinned the Terps inside the 10-yard-line.
It seemed Maryland's offense was perpetually going uphill, or at least a long distance.
“Their punter did a tremendous job of giving us tough field position all day long, and we weren't able to overcome that,” Edsall said.
Maryland (7-6) took its first lead early in the fourth quarter. Twice converting on fourth down, the Terps held the ball for 17 plays and 99 yards, both Military Bowl records, and consumed 7:44 of game clock. Quarterback C.J. Brown's 2-yard pass to tight end Dave Stinebaugh (Perry Hall) put the Terps up, 20-17.
But Marshall took the lead, 24-20, on running back Essray Taliaferro's 7-yard run on its next possession.
Just like that, Maryland's lead was gone for good. True to form, Marshall took just 2:51 on its go-ahead drive.
“They did a nice job of answering,” Brown said.
With Marshall still leading, 24-20, Cato threw his final touchdown pass of the day, an 8-yarder to Hoskins with 3:42 left.
Brown, who ran for 38 yards on 19 carries and surpassed the school's single-season rushing mark for a quarterback, threw an interception on Maryland's next possession.
Marshall's only loss in the past two months had been a 41-24 defeat to Rice in the Conference USA title game. Rice had kept Marshall's offense off the field by rushing for 248 yards during that Dec. 7 game.
The Terps tried to do the same Friday. Brown threw only eight passes in the first half, completing six, as Maryland ran the ball on 26 of its first 34 plays.
Maryland lost backup running back Albert Reid in the first half to an ankle injury, but starter Brandon Ross finished with 116 rushing yards on 20 carries.
“We wanted to keep our defense off the field for as long as we could,” Ross said. “That was our goal.”
It was the sixth Military Bowl, formerly the EagleBank Bowl, and first outside of Washington. Appropriately, the pregame activities for the first-ever bowl game at a service academy emphasized pomp and patriotism. Against the backdrop of a blue sky, members of a jump team entered the stadium with their parachutes attached to giant American flags. Marshall's helmets featured an American flag design.
“Today was just a beautiful day, the weather was great,” Edsall said. “We were just disappointed with the outcome.”
Maryland's 60th year in the ACC was shaped partly by losing wide top receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long and starting cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson to season-ending injuries. All were on the sideline Friday.
When they begin spring practices in March, the Terps will be looking ahead to the Big Ten. McDougle is a senior, but Diggs, Long and Johnson, among others, are expected to return. “This season really helped us as we're going to continue to move forward as we leave the ACC and we enter the Big Ten,” Edsall said.