COLLEGE PARK — Taivon Jacobs jogged back to the line of scrimmage after an overthrown pass by Caleb Rowe late in the first quarter of the Maryland football team's game Saturday against South Florida and offered a quick comment to his quarterback.
"I'm still open," the sophomore wide receiver told Rowe.
Two plays later, Jacobs got a step on South Florida cornerback Lamar Robbins, and Rowe aimed in his direction up the right sideline. Jacobs caught the ball in stride for a 70-yard touchdown, the first score of his career, to put Maryland up for good in the Terps' 35-17 victory over the Bulls before an announced 36,827 at Byrd Stadium.
After much talk of its lagging passing game and reshuffled depth chart this week, Maryland showed how potent its offense can be. But it also showed where it needs to improve ahead of the meat of its schedule.
"We just went into this week on the mindset that we was going to go out there and we couldn't be denied," wide receiver Levern Jacobs said. "And I think Caleb, the offense and the whole, did a great job at that. I think that's the kind of attitude we need to have going into each and every game for the rest of the season."
Rowe completed 21 of 33 passes for 297 yards, with four touchdowns and three interceptions in his fourth career start and first since Oct. 26, 2013. The redshirt junior became the first Maryland quarterback to throw four touchdowns in a game since Danny O'Brien did the same against North Carolina State on Nov. 27, 2010. Rowe also finished with the fourth-most passing yards in coach Randy Edsall's five years in College Park.
Rowe spread the ball around and completed passes to nine receivers, including new starters Taivon Jacobs (two catches for 82 yards and a touchdown) and D.J. Moore (three catches for 47 yards). Levern Jacobs led the way with eight catches for 107 yards, his third career 100-yard game.
But Rowe's mistakes nearly overshadowed his production. Both of South Florida's touchdowns came after an interception, the first of which helped put Maryland in an early 7-0 deficit. Miscommunication in the huddle contributed to Maryland's 12 penalties for 120 yards.
"I'm expecting the touchdowns," Rowe said. "I'm expecting to not throw interceptions. I just got to play better, got to be smart with the football and make better decisions and not try to force things. These are all things that coaches preach to me, and it's just something I have to improve on."
The Terps responded. Rowe hit fullback Kenneth Goins Jr. (Gilman) on a 1-yard touchdown pass off play-action to tie the game, and Taivon Jacobs' long score gave them the lead. A long pass to Levern Jacobs set up a touchdown for running back Brandon Ross (18 carries for 68 yards) and 21-10 advantage shortly before halftime. In the second half, Rowe connected with freshman tight end Avery Edwards on touchdowns of 12 and 22 yards.
"I thought he went in and made a lot of excellent throws, but we can't have those lapses that we had as we go and we move forward," Edsall said. "Caleb knows that. All you can do as a coach is show that to him and go out and prepare during the week, and you hope he learns and he grows from it."
While Maryland's offense was trying to find its form, the defense shut down South Florida a week after being shredded in a loss to Bowling Green. The Terps allowed 300 yards and held Bulls quarterbacks Quinton Flowers and Steven Bench to 10-for-22 passing for 60 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, both by cornerback Sean Davis. It was the first time Maryland held an opponent to fewer than 65 yards passing since September 2013 (West Virginia).
South Florida running back Marlon Mack, the reigning American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, had 71 yards on 12 carries.
Defensive end Roman Braglio (McDonogh) had a career high with two of Maryland's six sacks — the team's most since recording seven against Virginia Tech in November 2013 — and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue added 1 1/2. The Terps also had 11 tackles for losses, the most since they had 13 against N.C. State in November 2013.
"I told them this last night: I said, 'Guys, all I need you to do is play every play like it's the last play you're ever going to play. And if you do that, we're going to be fine,'" Edsall said. "And that's still the mentality we're trying to get them in."
After Bowling Green's shellacking last week, Maryland had to regroup and figure out what it wanted to do moving forward, especially with a game at West Virginia next Saturday and conference play beginning the following week. The Terps shuffled their starters in hopes of putting together an offense that could stretch the field and make enough plays to keep their defense off the field.
Most of that centered around Rowe, the redheaded gunslinger from South Carolina. He gave Maryland a new offensive identity with its downfield passing and deception off play-action for big gains and touchdowns. And on Saturday afternoon, the move to Rowe paid off. Mistakes or not, the Terps offense improved.
"I think in the game that we live in today, you kind of have to be" aggressive, Rowe said. "I feel like our offense is really evolving to where we want it. I'm looking forward to next week."