It is taking time for Maryland’s offense to mature, longer than anyone in its football program would like.
Fortunately for the Terrapins, the defense is already grown up.
That revitalized unit, so dreadful for much of last season, turned in another masterpiece Saturday to help Maryland survive Wake Forest 19-14 at Byrd Stadium.
The Terps (3-2, 1-0 ACC) surpassed their victory total from last season and are halfway to bowl eligibility after an often unsightly but ultimately fruitful afternoon.
“It’s better,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said. “It’s definitely better than being 2-10.”
Hartsfield (10 tackles) keyed another stout defensive performance for Maryland, which has yielded more than 250 yards just once all season. Wake Forest managed just two yards in the fourth quarter and 45 yards in the second half as the Terps won their conference opener for the fifth straight year.
“The defense, they played a great game,” quarterback Perry Hills said. “They saved us. Whenever something bad happened, they picked us back up.”
Over and over and over again.
Wake Forest (3-3, 1-3) managed only 241 total yards, missed a pair of field goals and turned three takeaways into just a touchdown. Still, Maryland required a meaningful stop in the final three minutes to complement an earlier goal-line stand.
Kenneth Tate and Hartsfield collected back-to-back sacks to end the possession, and Maryland managed to run out nearly all of the remaining 2:31 to secure the victory.
“A few times, we were getting very, very close to sacking the quarterback,” Hartsfield said. “He’d get it out right before and all game we were just talking about how close we were. We finally, finally got to the quarterback in the end.”
The same could be said for Maryland’s search for the end zone.
Nearly halfway through the season, the Terps still look like the motley collection they so often are on offense. Hills connected with Kevin Dorsey for a 33-yard touchdown pass, but also missed several opportunities.
Maryland’s rushing leader Saturday? Freshman Wes Brown, who managed just 2.3 yards a carry. Its top receiver? Stefon Diggs, who muffed a punt. Its two freshman offensive linemen starting for the first time? Both had false starts.
Still, there was at least one play to make up for the shortcomings. Hills finally slipped it into open space to Diggs, who weaved through the Wake defense for a 63-yard reception. Three plays later, Justus Pickett scored from a yard out to give Maryland a 19-14 edge with 5:37 to go.
Oddly, coach Randy Edsall trotted out kicker Brad Craddock to kick the extra point when a successful two-point conversion would have extended the lead to seven. Craddock’s kick missed, placing an even greater onus on the Terps’ defense to deliver; a Wake touchdown (even without an extra point) would put the Deacons ahead.
“I just thought I kicked the [extra point] there because our defense was playing really well and I guess I probably felt better about kicking the [extra point] than rather see if we could get a two-point conversion,” Edsall said.
The mathematical ramifications of the decision never materialized. The defense denied the Demon Deacons. Then it did again, choosing not to repeat the busted coverage Wake exploited for a touchdown in the opening minute.
It was reflective of the unit’s No. 8 ranking nationally in total defense entering the week. And it was a reminder of the exact formula it appears Maryland must follow if it is to scratch out a surprise bowl bid in the second half of the season.
“Defensively, we stepped up today,” Edsall said. “It’s a team game, but you have to really have to take your hats off to the defense because I think more than anything they’re the ones that really kept the game in check for us for us be able to go win the game and score enough points on offense to go get the victory.”