COLLEGE PARK – After 94 years of a closely contested Maryland-Virginia rivalry, it seemed appropriate that the last scheduled game came down to one desperate third-down pass, one field-goal attempt in the final seconds and one point separating the teams.
An Atlantic Coast Conference series that included plenty of memorable finishes provided another one in the 78th meeting. The game was not decided until Virginia kicker Alec Vozenilek — who had been 6-for-6 this season — pulled a potential game-winner wide right on the Cavaliers' final play to ensure the Terps' 27-26 victory before an announced 41,077 at Byrd Stadium.
Maryland players rushed the field after the miss, leaping in the air and chest-bumping each other. Some Terps jumped into the student section of the stands after Maryland ran out the clock to end the game.
With the win, Maryland (5-1, 1-1 ACC) topped its victory total from last season and moved to within one win of becoming bowl-eligible. The Terps also managed to defeat the Cavaliers at home for the first time since 2005.
“Well, that'll make you feel a few years older. But I'll take it,” Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. “That's probably the biggest rivalry that we have in football at the University of Maryland. I know we got their best game today. We knew we were going to get their best game because of the situation they were in.”
Virginia (2-4, 0-2 ACC) had lost three of its four previous games but almost managed to upset the Terps.
There was an element of luck on Saturday for Maryland. Several Terps remembered how, one year earlier, Maryland had lost a similar game to N.C. State when kicker Brad Craddock missed a chip-shot field goal in the final moments. The Terps lost two quarterbacks in that game to injury and would later lose another quarterback — Caleb Rowe — in a 2012 season characterized by misfortune.
This year, Maryland's luck seemed to have changed for the better. Twice, the sophomore Rowe benefitted when passes deflected by Virginia defenders ended up in the hands of his receivers. One of the plays went for 39 yards to Stefon Diggs (six catches for 96 yards).
“After the game everyone was joking around about how it was like the N.C. State game,” said Rowe, who completed 18-of-34 passes for 332 yards and one touchdown. “The tables were turned this time.”
Rowe played in place of usual starter C.J. Brown, who suffered a concussion the previous week against Florida State. Brown appeared on the field for warmups but did not play.
The Terps used big plays to take the lead. They had offensive plays of 77, 47, 39, 38, 37 and 36 yards, which helped them overcome three turnovers.
The biggest play came with Maryland trailing 26-20 late in the fourth quarter. The Terps faced a third-and-22 when Rowe scrambled to his right and threw deep to wide receiver Deon Long. Long out-jumped two defenders and caught the ball on Virginia's 13 for a 47-yard gain.
“I probably shouldn't say this, but Deon ran the wrong route,” Rowe said.
Long smiled when he heard his quarterback's assessment. Long said he adjusted the route when he saw Rowe scrambling. He said Rowe attracted the safety's attention, and Long took the opportunity to bolt downfield.
“I didn't run the wrong route,” Long said. “I was in the middle of running my route and I kind of peeked out of my break and saw [Rowe] scrambling, and I just took off. He just happened to throw me the ball. He should have, after all of the passes he missed me on.”
Said Edsall: “[Rowe] put the ball in a position where Deon had an opportunity to go and make the catch. It was a fabulous catch.”
Rowe then hit tight end Dave Stinebaugh, whose diving, 12-yard touchdown catch put Maryland ahead, 27-26, with 5:14 left.
“I just had to go down and scoop it up,” said Stinebaugh (Perry Hall). “My second career touchdown ends up being the game-winning touchdown. You couldn't ask for much more than that.”
Long finished with four catches for 98 yards. Running back Brandon Ross had 88 rushing yards and a career-high 81 yards receiving.
Rowe is less mobile than Brown and more limited in the read option. But Rowe did run at times. With the Terps leading 17-16, he rushed for 19 yards to the Virginia 33 on third down. The drive ended with a 32-yard field goal by Craddock to extend the margin to 20-16.
Virginia's final comeback opportunity came when it took over on its 17 with 2:34 left, trailing by one. Quarterback David Watford, who threw for a career-high 263 yards, completed three straight passes and pulled the Cavaliers to within striking range for Vozenilek with no timeouts left. There were 21 seconds left before the fourth-down kick.
Vozenilek, a junior who also punts, “should not shoulder the blame or anything,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “That's his first miss since he's been kicking.”
It was an important game for Maryland because the Terps had lost 63-0 the previous week at Florida State. Coaches hoped their young team — two-thirds of Maryland's roster is comprised of underclassmen — could rebound.
“We didn't want to make one loss two losses,” Rowe said.
It also meant something for the Terps to beat the Cavaliers in their final meeting before Maryland joins the Big Ten next season. The teams have met every season since 1957.
“It's good to beat Virginia in the last time we will play them for the foreseeable future,” Edsall said.