LANDOVER, MD — It’s important to acknowledge that nothing that happened Saturday at FedEx Field changes anything about the tragic circumstances that put the Maryland football team in a “missing man” formation to honor late teammate Jordan McNair at the start of its game against No. 23 Texas.
But that doesn’t suggest the Terps’ 34-29 victory over the Longhorns is without special meaning for the university and everyone connected to it who has suffered through a summer of sadness and scandal.
This victory bore almost mystic similarities to last year’s season opener against the also-then-No. 23 Longhorns, who were much heavier favorites in that game and seemed like a pretty big deal at the time.
That was the signature victory of DJ Durkin’s young head coaching career, but it didn’t end up taking the Terps anywhere. This win already has, because it allowed the football team to come together in a public way and let the fans feel real pride in the team even though it might be a while before they will be able to feel that way about the embattled athletic department.
Of course, it’s just football, but in that context it was a win that provided the players the opportunity to feel good about themselves and about football after McNair’s death had to make it seem like a trivial pursuit.
It was pretty obvious the Terps came to play. They jumped out to a 24-7 lead in the first half and looked like they didn’t have a care in the world. That appearance was deceiving, because they clearly were holding McNair close to their hearts when they took the field for their first offensive series.
“Before any football game, there’s going to be a lot of emotion,’’ redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill said. “There are a variety of different emotions. You’ve got your hype people. You’ve got your chill people. I just think everybody’s just happy to play a football game again. It’s been a long time since we’ve played a football game. … It was fun to be able to go out there and play against a good opponent and get after it.”
Hill had a hard time drawing a comparison to last year’s win over the Longhorns, because the memory is obstructed by the unhappy aftermath of that uplifting opener. Both Hill and fellow quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome went down with season-ending injuries soon after and any hope of building on the major upset went down with them.
“I don’t say you take things for granted, but it’s different not being able to go out there with your brothers and play a football game,’’ said Hill, who completed 17 of 29 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown.
Maybe Hill isn’t the right guy to ask about such weighty issues. Saturday’s victory was only his fourth college football game. He came on late in last year’s victory over Texas after Pigrome was hurt and sealed the 51-41 victory with a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives. He also played well against Towson the following week before going down for the year with a knee injury in a lopsided loss to Central Florida.
Interim head coach Matt Canada watched his team battle back after letting go of a 17-point lead and almost choked up talking about the way his players organized the tribute to McNair and brought home a victory for him. The game ball was awarded to McNair and placed in his locker. It will be presented to McNair’s parents on what would’ve been his senior day.
“There was a real focus on this football team to win this game,’’ Canada said. “We talked about our room, our building and everybody else outside of our building really doesn’t matter. They really don’t matter. That’s how we plan. That’s how we focus. That’s not being mean or however you want to spin that, but the only people who knew how we were going to play were the guys in our building, and I think they had no doubt they were going to win.
“They convinced me, because I can get nervous about just about anything.”
The “missing man” tribute at the start of the game required the cooperation of the Longhorns. The offense took the field after the opening kickoff and lined up with McNair’s position on the line left empty. The players stayed there until the play clock ran out and were penalized five yards for delay of game, but Texas coach Tom Herman declined it.
“I thank Tom for that, for allowing us to do that and they obviously declined the penalty,’’ Canada said, “and that was a class move by Texas. That was something [our] guys wanted to do. They wanted to go out there and make sure Jordan was remembered. And we did that.
“Everything we’ve done to honor Jordan is from our players. They’re the ones who decided it, talked about it. … It was special. It was emotional. It’s emotional right now talking about it. I’m proud of our players.”