MORGANTOWN, W.Va. | Maryland’s defensive mantra all week wasn’t complex. It was also valid.
Above all else, don’t permit West Virginia’s game-wreckers to wreck the game.
Tavon Austin did plenty on his own to ruin the Terrapins’ latest unsuccessful meeting with the Mountaineers.
The Baltimore native caught three touchdown passes as No. 8 West Virginia upended Maryland 31-21 at Mountaineer Field.
Austin finished with 13 receptions for 179 yards, and his three scores were among only four Mountaineer plays of at least 20 yards the solid Terp defensive yielded.
“The only problem is those three or four plays cost us the game,” defensive lineman A.J. Francis said. “We may have been able to stop them for the most part, but those three or four plays that they did get, they won the game off them.”
It was a commendable performance for Maryland (2-2), which has lost its last seven to West Virginia, most in lopsided fashion. Saturday’s setback appeared headed for a similar outcome after the Mountaineers scored 14 first-quarter points, but the Terps rallied to tie and remained within two possessions for all but a minute of the game.
It was validation of a vastly improved defense from a year ago, and Maryland’s offense also showed some potency after struggling in the season’s first three weeks.
It was not, though, a reason to celebrate.
“There are no moral victories,” coach Randy Edsall said. “We don’t play the game and put the effort and time we did into to walk away feeling good. We lost. It just takes another chunk out of you when you lose.”
Quarterback Perry Hills authored a pair of impressive recoveries against the Mountaineers (3-0). A week removed from a lackluster performance, Hills threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns (two to fellow freshman Stefon Diggs) and showed considerable growth when he wasn’t dealing with one of the five sacks he absorbed.
He also took a hit from his blind side late in the first half after officials blew dead a play for a false start. Hills was stunned and sat on the field, leaving for a play before returning to play the rest of the game.
Edsall, irate about the no-call, harangued referee Jeff Flanagan. He declined to extensively discuss the play with reporters.
“Probably not because I’ll get reprimanded so I’d rather not say anything because I really don’t need to be fined or reprimanded so I’ll leave it at that,” Edsall said.
Maryland’s biggest problem, though, was figuring out how to contain Austin. It was a problem the Terps never figured out in three meetings with the local product who spurned them to play for the Mountaineers.
It was Austin who finished off a quick-strike possession with a 44-yard touchdown reception from Geno Smith. It was Austin who torched a busted coverage for a 24-yard score less than a minute before halftime. It was Austin who exploited linebacker coverage on a Maryland blitz to haul in a 34-yard score to bump the Mountaineers’ lead to 31-14.
He became the first player to catch three touchdown passes against Maryland since Florida State’s Talman Gardner in 2001. In three games against the Terps, Austin has 31 catches for 407 yards and five touchdowns.
“We just let them get a few big plays,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said. “They didn’t have too many total yards, not [much] more than our offense. We just let them get more touchdowns.”
The Terps will have a fortnight to rue their shortcomings. Their bye week breaks up a nonconference slate marked (somewhat predictably) by uneven play and ACC play that commences with Wake Forest’s Oct. 6 visit to College Park.
There was only so much to realistically expect from Maryland given its plethora of youth, especially on offense. The Terps’ defense limited West Virginia to 363 yards, its third-lowest total in 16 games under coach Dana Holgorsen.
And it harbored hopes well into the fourth quarter, albeit slimmer than in last week’s loss, of pulling out a victory against a power-conference foe.
Without Austin the game-wrecker, the Terps might have done just that.
“We could have easily pulled this one out,” Francis said. “We could have easily pulled last week out. We could be 4-0. Ifs and buts, right?”
—- Patrick Stevens