PISCATAWAY, N.J. — When he took over as Maryland's interim coach in mid-October, Mike Locksley talked about the opportunity his team had to create its own legacy in a season that was ripe with underachievement and adversity. He wanted the Terps to have fun. When Maryland's season ultimately ended, he didn't want his players regretting anything.
So much of the Terps' energy focused on the end and how they wanted to leave this season behind. They didn't want to close it out on the program's first nine-game losing streak since 1967. They didn't want to close it with Locksley going winless in his interim role. That wasn't the legacy they wanted to leave behind in College Park.
On a dingy Saturday afternoon on the banks of the Raritan River, the Terps assured themselves of a different ending.
Maryland overcame a 21-point first-half deficit with a furious second-half comeback to shock Rutgers, 46-41, before an announced 44,846 at High Point Solutions Stadium. Running back Brandon Ross scored the game-winning touchdown on an 80-yard run with 4:40 remaining in the game, and the defense sealed it by stopping Rutgers a half-inch short on a fourth-and-1 in the final two minutes.
As quarterback Caleb Rowe kneeled to run out the game clock, cornerback Will Likely — who warmed up but didn't play because of an ankle injury — and outside linebacker Mbi Tanyi dumped Maryland's Gatorade cooler on Locksley after seeing their eight-game losing streak come to an end.
"That's really how we wanted to end it," said Ross, who rushed 28 times for 173 yards and three touchdowns and finished his career fourth on Maryland's all-time rushing list. "We just wanted to end it with a win. It didn't go the way we wanted it to, but to send the seniors out with a win, that's really all we wanted."
There's no doubt the Terps will look different when they open preseason camp in August 2016 after the program's current coaching search wraps up. Locksley declined to comment about his expectations for the future after the game.
"We'll worry about that when that time comes," he said.
But for one half on a rainy afternoon, the Terps (3-9, 1-7 Big Ten Conference) clicked and flipped the script on the Scarlet Knights (4-8, 1-7). Almost one year ago to the day, Maryland led Rutgers by 18 points at halftime, only to collapse in the second half and lose, 41-38. This time, it was the Terps who trailed by 18 with two quarters left in its season after Scarlet Knights quarterbacks Chris Laviano threw three of his four touchdowns and wide receiver Leonte Carroo (seven catches, 183 yards, one touchdown) had five of his catches in the first half.
Maryland outscored Rutgers, 33-10, in the second half.
"It was something we had in our head all week," middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said. "We blew a huge lead, and it's just something we did all season. We led a couple games this season, but we just didn't finish. But we were able to finish today and that's the most important thing."
After Rutgers took a 17-0 lead, Locksley pulled starting quarterback Perry Hills and went with Rowe. While the redshirt junior Rowe didn't throw a touchdown pass, he wasn't intercepted — he entered the weekend tied for the most in the nation with 15 — and he finished 16-for-32 for 239 yards.
With Rowe in the game, the Rutgers defense tried to take away the downfield passing game, which let Maryland run. And Maryland gashed the Rutgers defense. The Terps ran 42 times for 401 yards and six touchdowns.
Ross had touchdown runs of 1, 16 and 80 yards. Running back Ty Johnson had only two carries, but he ran for 43- and 44-yard touchdowns. The only time Rowe handed the ball to fullback Kenneth Goins Jr. on third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, Goins broke off a 42-yard touchdown.
When Rutgers extended its lead to 38-27 late in the third quarter or retook a 41-39 lead with less than five minutes left in the game, Maryland had the answer on the ground.
"They could have just gone through the motions, but they didn't," Locksley said. "Something that they've shown all year long. I felt like they left it all out on the field. As a coaching staff, that's all we've asked of them for the last six weeks, and I'm very, very proud of the way those guys fought."
Maryland left it up to its defense to hold off one last-gasp attempt from Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights drove down to the Maryland 38, and the Terps stuffed Rutgers running back Robert Martin on third-and-1.
On fourth-and-1, Martin plunged into the line once again, and Carter met him in the hole, followed by outside linebacker Avery Thompson, safety A.J. Hendy and outside linebacker Jalen Brooks. The officials brought out the chains to measure, and the ball was a few chain links short of the first down.
That kicked off a raucous celebration on the Maryland sideline. In a season that had seemed lost or doomed, the Terps found their ending.
"To go out as winners," Ross said, "that's how we wanted it to end."