The Maryland football team hadn't faced any adversity in the 10 months since first-year coach DJ Durkin took over the floundering program in College Park.
In its place, Durkin and his staff had manufactured enough stressful situations that the Terps felt prepared for anything – even for what turned into a wild double-overtime 30-24 victory over Central Florida on Saturday night.
After losing senior quarterback Perry Hills with an apparent shoulder injury on the first play of the second overtime – after Hills scored a touchdown in the first overtime – Maryland inserted freshman backup Tyrrell Pigrome, who scored on a 24-yard run on his first play.
That followed the Terps forcing their fourth turnover of the game by freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton, who lost control and passed the ball backward – making it a fumble - in the second overtime after driving the Knights to the Maryland 2-yard line.
The swing of both emotion and momentum finally stayed with the Terps, who celebrated in the end zone after Pigrome turned his only play of the night at raucous Bright House Networks Stadium into the game-winner.
The victory in Maryland’s first double-overtime game since the Terps won at North Carolina State in 2000 to claim the ACC title in Ralph Friedgen’s first season gave Durkin’s team a 3-0 record heading into an off-week before its Big Ten opener against Purdue.
“I think it’s a program builder,” Durkin said. “To go on the road in college football and win games is not easy. How many upsets were there today? We talked about it all week. We believed that’s how this game was going to go. Not double-overtime. We thought it was going to be a tough game.”
Said senior cornerback Will Likely, who finished with a career-high 14 tackles, “It was definitely a great game. They came out ready to play. It was definitely tough in a hostile environment.”
The Terps might have made it more difficult for themselves than it had to be, but Milton played a role.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound freshman from Hawaii, who wasn’t even listed on the team’s depth chart and wasn’t announced as a replacement for injured senior Justin Holman until late Friday night, gave the Terps fits in completing 21 of 36 passes for 260 yards as well as scrambling effectively.
“He’s a good athlete. He definitely hurt us scrambling out of the pocket,” said Durkin, who along with his defensive coaches and players watched high school tapes of Milton early Saturday morning. “A lot of those third-down plays were broken-down plays and him throwing the ball up in the air or scrambling. We’ve got to get that solved on defense.”
After forcing three turnovers in the first half, Maryland scored off only one of them.
Falling behind 7-0 late in the first quarter on Milton’s first career touchdown pass – a 4-yarder to senior running back Dontravious Wilson to cap an eight-play, 75 yard drive – the Terps squeezed a 10-7 lead on a 7-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison midway through the second quarter and a 33-yard field goal by junior Adam Greene (Broadneck) as the first half expired.
But Maryland failed to capitalize on great field position on its first two possessions of the second half – both starting at the Central Florida 33, one after Likely returned the opening kickoff 64 yards and the second after the Terps forced Knights punter Mac Loudermilk into running on fourth down. Greene missed field goal tries of 38 and 51 yards on those two drives.
“I’m so proud of our guys. There were so many times in that game they had to dig deep, and the offense had to pick up the defense and the defense had to pick up the offense, special teams and everything,” Durkin said. “There were a lot of swings in that game. More than anything, you can look at our team and say, we held strong through all of that.”
The last piece of adversity took place as Hills was tackled after a one-yard gain in the second overtime.
Hills went down hard on his right shoulder and was attended to by trainers before Pigrome entered the game for the first time. Hills, who had ice on the same shoulder after last week’s win at Florida International, stood outside the locker room and didn’t seem to be in any discomfort.
“Perry’s a tough guy. I think he’ll be fine,” Durkin said. “Perry is tough, man. Perry’s us. You can hit him. I get on him sometimes; he’s taking too many hits. He needs to get out of bounds, get down. That’s just him, that’s his personality and that’s our team.”
While Hills started slowly, his season-long 51-yard pass to wide receiver Teldrick Morgan helped set up the go-ahead field goal by Greene before halftime and his second-half running, including taking it three straight plays in the first overtime to score on a 5-yard run, kept Maryland in the game.
It marked the third straight game that the Terps didn’t commit a turnover.
“Their defense was flying around out there. They’ve got some good athletes on the field," Durkin said. "[No turnovers] was the difference in the game."
The difference could also be traced back to the winter, when Durkin put his players through challenging weight room sessions and during the summer, when he had them practice in the mid-day heat.
“He put us through tough predicaments, so once this time actually comes, we’re used to it so we don’t bend. That’s what we kind of want,” Likely said. “That’s when big-time [players] step up and it helped us.”
Senior running back Kenneth Goins Jr. (Gilman), whose 16-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter briefly gave Maryland the lead, said that “it was exciting” but acknowledged that the Terps might have dodged a rather obvious bullet.
“We expected to do better than we did,” Goins said. “We pretty much trained for this type of environment. We just went out and played. We were ready for this type of game, the adversity. We just stuck together, like a fist. We believed we were going to win from the beginning. We just had to make adjustments and execute.”
NOTES: The Terps are off until they play Purdue in College Park on Oct. 1. … Redshirt sophomore defensive end Melvin Keihn (Gilman), a transfer from Virginia Tech, and sophomore wide reciever Jahrvis Davenport did not make the trip to Orlando. No reason was given, but it didn’t appear as if it was because of injury.