Maryland’s football players ventured onto campus in the days following a humbling loss to Middle Tennessee, and the murmurs and odd looks were never far behind.
The program hit its nadir in seven-plus seasons under coach Ralph Friedgen, and understandable concerns quickly surfaced about the short-term future of a team that couldn’t beat an undermanned opponent.
For a week, the Terrapins weren’t good enough for much of anything. And Friedgen tossed it back at his players on Friday at the team hotel less than 18 hours before Maryland met No. 23 California.
“I said we need to get after these guys as soon as they walk off the bus,” Friedgen said.
So, playing to the usual form of the last few seasons of producing gems at the most unanticipated of times, the Terps did precisely that, building a substantial lead before fending off the Golden Bears 35-27 before 49,527 at Byrd Stadium.
Chris Turner completed 15 of 19 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns. Da’Rel Scott ran for 87 yards and two scores, and when he suffered a left shoulder injury, Davin Meggett added 82 yards and a touchdown.
The defense recorded its first sack of the season - then tacked on four more. And Maryland (2-1) prevented the Golden Bears (2-1), a team that had averaged 52 points a game, from reaching the end zone until the final seven minutes.
All this from a bunch that could scarcely do anything correct just seven days earlier.
“Everything seemed to make sense today,” linebacker Dave Philistin said. “I don’t know what it is. I know y’all are probably like ‘Wow. Is this supposed to happen?’ But it did happen.”
Some things were less believable than others. California tailback Jahvid Best, who entered averaging 155.5 yards rushing, managed only 25. The Golden Bears, so sharp in their first two games, seemed to be sleepwalking at times - and maybe they were, since they didn’t fly in from the West Coast until Friday and the game kicked off at 9 a.m. Pacific time.
Yet the most difficult thing to come to terms with is just how the Terps’ Dr. Jekyll impersonation yesterday could square with the Mr. Hyde on display seven days prior.
The poster child for the Terps’ inconsistency is Turner, a junior whose talent for well-timed performances against ranked opponents surfaced again. Last fall, he reserved his best games for meetings with a pair of top-10 teams - Rutgers and Boston College - Maryland faced after devastating losses.
And so after a tumultuous month - losing the starting nod in camp, nearly transferring, regaining the job when Jordan Steffy fractured his thumb and then authoring a three-interception clunker against Middle Tennessee - Turner looked as good as ever.
His decisions were nearly flawless, and he consistently found an open man while handling a potent pass rush. By the time he connected with junior Darrius Heyward-Bey on a 27-yard strike early in the third quarter - just moments after California was stifled on a fourth down - the Terps were up 28-6.
“It’s been a long week and we had a lot of preparation and we just knew if we could get this win, it could just totally change the trajectory [of the season],” Turner said. “Hopefully we can just capitalize on it.”
Avoiding a late-game scare wouldn’t hurt, either. With injuries surfacing in the secondary and the Golden Bears forced to throw, Cal quarterback Kevin Riley tossed three touchdowns in a five-minute span to pull the Bears within a possession.
But tucked into Riley’s wild fourth quarter - 239 of his 423 yards came in the final 15 minutes - were three onside kicks recovered by Maryland. One quickly led to Meggett’s insurance score. Another resulted in three kneel-downs by Turner, a prayer for the arrival of the impending celebration likely offered with each.
“We know what we’re capable of doing,” defensive tackle Jeremy Navarre said. “This is the exact same team from last year that beat these teams. We’re all back. When you start off like we did, 1-1 … I don’t care how much people read, they’re not going to believe this team is going to get it done against someone like Cal.”
But the Terps did, again confounding conventional wisdom while re-infusing hope into a season a week after a deflating setback - and revealing a path that could still lead to a productive year.
“We really need to grow from this game,” Friedgen said. “It kind of showed what our kids are made of.”
Notes - Kicker Obi Egekeze missed a 27-yard field goal and fell to 0-for-5 for the season. “I’ll probably make a change there or at least put it into competition, if nothing else,” Friedgen said. …
Cornerback Richard Taylor suffered a knee or hamstring injury and is expected to undergo an MRI exam Sunday.