— It was a day that began with a sense of uneasiness for the Maryland Terrapins and their fans.
The Terps were so thin at quarterback because of injuries that punt returner Tony Logan was designated as the principal backup and was throwing passes before Saturday's game. Once the game started, quarterback Danny O'Brien — a redshirt freshman making his first career start because of Jamarr Robinson's sore shoulder — could manage only one first down on the first three series as Maryland fell behind.
But O'Brien — himself recovering from an ankle sprain — and the Terps soon righted themselves. Logan played his usual position and returned a punt 85 yards for a second-quarter score and Da'Rel Scott ran for two touchdowns to revive a dormant running game as Maryland defeated Florida International, 42-28.
With the victory, the Terps (3-1) surpassed last season's win total.
But it wasn't easy. O'Brien became the first freshman to start at quarterback in head coach Ralph Friedgen's 10 years and the first at Maryland since Latrez Harrison in 1999. Nursing a sprained right ankle, O'Brien said he had been unable to practice early last week.
But he was healthier than Robinson, who coaches had earlier said was expected to play. Friedgen said after the game that Robinson's throwing shoulder was so sore he couldn't raise it above his head.
O'Brien completed 18 of 27 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns. He did not turn the ball over. "Very poised, very calm, very smart," is the way offensive coordinator James Franklin described O'Brien's first start.
O'Brien, a former North Carolina high school basketball player, is big — 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. But he has a choir-boy face that makes him look younger than his teammates. He turns 20 today and said he will celebrate his birthday — and the win — with his family.
"I feel like I had a pretty good performance," said O'Brien, whose first play at Maryland resulted in a botched handoff when he came in briefly during the season-opening victory over Navy. "The O-line did a great job all day keeping me up."
If O'Brien had gone down — as he did at West Virginia last week with the bad ankle — Friedgen said he would have used Logan at quarterback over true freshman Devin Burns. Logan — who played quarterback in high school in Piscataway, N.J. — has "at least been in the game. He throws the ball relatively well," Friedgen said.
Clinging to narrow leads, Maryland needed two interceptions and a fourth-down stop in the second half.
With FIU trailing 35-21, running back Darriet Perry couldn't hang onto quarterback Wes Carroll's pass on fourth and goal from the 4 with 9:26 left. An earlier FIU fourth-quarter drive was halted by Trenton Hughes' interception on the Maryland 2 with 12:37 left. "When we get down that close we have to score touchdowns," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said.
FIU finally managed to drive 68 yards on 14 plays to cut the lead to one touchdown on Perry's 1-yard run with 4:16 remaining in the game.
But Maryland's Davin Meggett burst through a hole on the left side on the team's next offensive play and went 76 yards for a touchdown to make it 42-28.
FIU, winless through three games, is far from Maryland's toughest opponent. But all games are big and all wins precious for a Terrapins team that won just twice last season and is trying to find an identity.
After last season, defensive coordinator Don Brown said it's not enough these days for Maryland to be close. "Getting paid at the end of the day is a hell of a lot better than not getting paid at the end of the day," Brown said.
Maryland won despite surrendering 472 yards to FIU, which is from the same conference (the Sun Belt) as the Middle Tennessee team that beat Maryland in 2008 and 2009. FIU quarterback Wes Carroll completed 32 of 58 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns.
Continuing a troubling early-season trend for the Terps, Maryland's defense remained on the field for large chunks of time in the 84-degree heat.
"They had 98 (offensive) plays — that might be the most I've ever seen (and) it wasn't exactly cool out there," Friedgen said.
O'Brien started slowly. Maryland had two rushing yards on its first three series. O'Brien was playing behind a reconfigured line. Redshirt freshman Pete DeSouza made his first career start at tackle and tackle R.J. Dill switched from the right side to the left because of last week's season-ending knee injury to Justin Gilbert.
On the fourth possession, O'Brien produced his first big play of the game. Trailing 7-0, he threw from his 49-yard-line toward Torrey Smith along the sideline. FIU cornerback Emmanuel Souarin went for an interception, leaving Smith open for 32 yards to the 19. Two plays later, O'Brien lofted a floater to the far corner of the end zone to LaQuan Williams for a 9-yard touchdown with 14:55 left in the half.
Smith finished the game with eight catches for 159 yards. He spent part of the second half limping but said he was not hurt. "I was fine. I was Jim Brown-ing," Smith said, referring to the former NFL great who was known for getting up slowly after tackles.
Maryland made it 14-7 on the return by Logan, who is off to his best career start. It was Maryland's first punt return touchdown since Steve Suter in the 2004 Gator Bowl. The junior entered the game third in the nation at 27.4 yards per return.
Later, Scott had a 56-yard run to give Maryland a 21-14 lead with 2:38 left in the half. Maryland had minus-2 yards rushing at the time of Scott's touchdown and was desperate to revive a running game that had minus-10 yards against West Virginia last week.
The Terps open their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule at home Saturday against Duke. While it is uncertain who will start at quarterback, it may be hard for coaches to remove O'Brien for Robinson after Saturday's performance.
"I think they'll both play," Franklin said. 'Who starts, I don't know."