The most memorable play in Maryland's victory over Virginia was foreshadowed on an August afternoon when Stefon Diggs settled under a kickoff during training camp.
Diggs caught the ball on the 2, hesitated, then burst up the middle and angled left for a 98-yard touchdown.
It was just an intrasquad scrimmage, but the play demonstrated not only the freshman's speed, but a knack for finding seams in kickoff coverage. He typically pauses after fielding kicks — a tactic that allows him to survey the field.
In Maryland's 27-20 win Saturday, Diggs hesitated longer than usual after catching the opening kickoff several yards deep in the end zone. He took a few tentative steps then accelerated, veered to his right and raced for a touchdown.
Diggs' delay not only allowed him to glimpse onrushing tacklers, but also caused some Virginia players to believe the player was downing the ball.
"We should never let up and run through the end zone when the ball is kicked," said Virginia coach Mike London, whose team lost its fifth straight game. "We knew that Diggs was a special player, a dynamic player. Your job is to run down on the kickoffs and cover the kickoffs. Regardless of what you think someone is doing, that's what we're supposed to do and obviously we didn't do it."
Maryland (4-2, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) had not previously returned a kick from end zone to end zone since Josh Wilson in 2006.
Maryland running back Wes Brown — Diggs' high school teammate at Good Counsel — said Diggs is different than many other young returners.
"He has patience, kind of like [Chicago Bears star returner] Devin Hester has," Brown said before the season. "He can lay back and then knows when he wants to attack. After he went back-to-back in the Gilman game [in 2009], they just stopped kicking to him."
After six games, Diggs' teammates have become adept at anticipating his big plays and sprinting downfield to block. His blockers on Saturday's kickoff included Justus Pickett and Dave Stinebaugh.
"I thought that was very well executed," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said Sunday. "We got bodies on bodies. The people in front of him did a great job."
But, sometimes, Diggs barely needs help.
After a first-quarter catch, Diggs appeared trapped by a Virginia defender before spinning completely around and running to the Virginia 12 to complete a 60-yard play.
"Just one of those instinct plays," he said. "He had my jersey from the back. So I tried to get away from him any way I could, and it happened the 360 worked a little bit."
The play set up a field goal to put the Terps ahead, 17-0, in the first quarter. Maryland held on, becoming the only ACC team without a conference loss.
Diggs was playing with a sore back and ankle. "He fell on the ball and it looked like he might have tweaked his back or something like that," Edsall said. "And then somebody fell on his ankle, too."
Wide receiver Marcus Leak returned punts for Diggs after the minor injuries. Edsall said it's not clear whether Leak will continue as the punt returner or whether Diggs will continue returning punts as well as kicks. "We'll evaluate this week," Edsall said.
Notes: Edsall said he was pleased with the performance of redshirt freshman Evan Mulrooney, who filled in on the offensive line after injuries to center Sal Conaboy and Bennett Fulper. Conaboy and Fulper were being evaluated. … The Cavaliers collected 273 of their 386 yards on just 11 plays. "We can't be the defense we want to be if we're giving up too many big plays," Edsall said.
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