A Maryland football season that seemed to take forever to begin — after offensive lineman Jordan McNair died in June and third-year coach DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August amid allegations of a “toxic” culture surrounding the team — opened with a game that seemed to take forever to end.
Saturday’s game began with a moment of silence to remember McNair, the former McDonogh School standout who died of heatstroke at age 19, from the announced crowd of 47,641 — as well as the Terps honoring him by lining up against No. 23 Texas with only 10 men on their first snap.
But after a nearly 90-minute delay because of lightning in the fourth quarter that cleared the stands at FedEx Field, and more than five hours after the game began, the Terps hung on for an emotional 34-29 victory to give interim coach Matt Canada a win in his head coaching debut, thus sweeping the home-and-home series a year after beating the Longhorns in Austin.
Canada said the Terps will take the game ball back to College Park and put it in McNair’s locker at the Gossett Team House, then present it to McNair’s parents on what would have been his freshman class’ senior day in 2020.
“I just can't say enough about our players, everything they’ve been through and the way they stuck together,” Canada said. “It was a great way to honor Jordan. This was a win for Jordan. We’re certainly proud of our team, proud of our program. Everybody in our building stuck together. We’re proud of everybody.”
Said redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill: “We’re really a close knit family. Everything that has happened this summer has brought us closer together. This is the closest I’ve ever been with my teammates, coaches. It was just great to get a win, be back out there. It’s been a long time since we played a football game and it was just fun to be back out there with everybody.”
It was a coming-out party for freshman wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, who became only the fourth true freshman in his first game since 1996 to throw for a touchdown, run for a touchdown and catch a touchdown reception in a game.
It was also a comeback performance for Hill, who after missing the last nine games last season with a torn ACL finished 17-for-29 for 222 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown pass to Jones that helped the Terps build a 24-7 lead in the second quarter.
And, most importantly, it was a memorable fourth quarter for the team’s often-maligned defense, which forced three straight turnovers to close the game, the last coming on an interception by junior nickel back Antoine Brooks with a little over a minute left and the Longhorns out of timeouts.
Though Canada might still not know the tendencies of the defense — or even the names of all the unit’s players — he could sense their collective determination by overcoming some offensive mistakes, including a safety after a fumble in the end zone by junior tailback Jake Funk and a fourth-down sneak by Hill that was stopped.
“Our players weren’t going to be denied,” Canada said. “I give great credit to our defense. [Texas] had two short-field touchdowns there. But they played very, very well. They played together. They found a way to get it done.”
After seeing its big lead shrivel to just two points, 24-22, by halftime and then fall behind late in the third quarter, Maryland went back ahead on a 17-yard run by sophomore tailback Tayon Fleet-Davis early in the fourth quarter. The game was stopped for the weather delay, and a few minutes later, a deluge began.
Canada said the touchdown drive right before the weather delay was indicative of how his team showed its resolve when Jones jumped offsides and Hill was sacked for a 9-yard loss, before later converting a big fourth-down play on a 10-yard run by Hill to keep the drive going.
“We were stopping ourselves a little bit. We made some unforced errors at times. Obviously I’ve got to do a better job calling plays,” said Canada, who came to Maryland as offensive coordinator after one season at LSU. “Our kids just kept believing.
“The fact that we had two unforced errors in my opinion … and we still ended up getting a touchdown, that’s impressive. That’s a sign of a team that sticks together and believes. It’s easy to point a finger and they’re not doing that.”
Redshirt senior wide receiver Taivon Jacobs said the long delay in the locker room only strengthened the team’s bond, using some disparaging remarks recently by the Longhorns to help refill their emotional fuel tank.
“We just stuck together,” said Jacobs, who caught five passes for 73 yards, including a 20-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass from Jones. “We remembered what Texas said prior to the game and we used that as our motivation to go forth in the fourth quarter.”
It was an interesting day for the 46-year-old Canada, who was given the task of taking over the team exactly three weeks before the season opener.
“The first quarter was the longest quarter I’ve ever been a part of,” Canada said. “I’ve always called it from upstairs [in the coaches' box]. I started to think that I’m just old and out of shape. But it was a long time standing down there. The delay was a part of it. We’ve all gone through those. Our kids did a great job.
“For me, it was different. Calling it from the field. You talk about the thing I was most worried about. It was calling the game from the field. I’ve never done that. I didn’t want to screw that job up. That’s my job. I’m the offensive coordinator and I call the plays. Sometimes I’m good at it and sometimes I’m not.”
Asked about his assessment of Canada as a head coach, Hill smiled as the interview room filled with laughter.
“Well, it’s a tough question,” he said, joking. “I don’t know Matt Canada, head coach. I know him more as Matt Canada, offensive coordinator. It was just good to be out there with everybody, run our new stuff, compete against a ranked opponent and come out with a victory. The win is all that matters. We got the win.”
It was an emotional and uplifting win for the fans as well, some of whom celebrated with the players and waved a flag with McNair’s jersey number (79) on it.
As he walked out of FedEx Field on Saturday night, longtime Maryland fan Ken Tighe of Annapolis, summed up what the victory meant after a tragic summer that never seemed to end.
“The Maryland community as a whole needed to feel some success after what we’ve been through, after all of the tragedy we’re facing,” he said. “I think it gives [the players] a lot of confidence going forward that they’re good. And we can play. And we can play with anybody.”
NOTES: The media held a moment of silence in the press box for John McNamara, a 1983 Maryland grad and longtime beat reporter for the Capital Gazette who was one of five people who were killed in late June in a shooting at the newspaper’s offices. Flowers and a placard with McNamara’s name were placed before an empty seat in the press box.