- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 12, 2020

After Joseph Petrino’s 50-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left, and after the Rutgers bench spilled onto the field in celebration, Maryland quarterback Eric Najarian strode slowly off the field. One coach put his arm around Najarian. Athletic director Damon Evans shook his hand.

The walk-on quarterback — normally the third-string option for the Terrapins — had given his team a chance to win in his first college action. He had thrown for 218 yards and two touchdowns in his relief outing.

But when the Scarlet Knights pushed Saturday’s game to overtime, they sacked Najarian on third-and-long, setting Petrino up with a challenging attempt. Najarian had done much well on Saturday, playing in the game at all because of an amalgam of bizarre circumstances.

The magic ran out, though, and Maryland dropped its Senior Day matchup to Rutgers, 27-24.

“Kudos and credit to [Najarian] for having himself prepared to go out and perform the way he did,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “It’s a shame that the surrounding cast didn’t all do their part from a discipline standpoint and an execution standpoint to send these seniors out the right way.”

Locksley learned Friday morning that starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa wouldn’t be available due to medical reasons. Backup quarterback Lance LeGendre was benched after ineffective play. So Locksley turned to Najarian, hoping a change would spark his offense.

That’s what Najarian did come the fourth quarter. He stood in the pocket and found Dontay Demus for a 23-yard touchdown pass. And later on, after more back-and-forth action, Najarian escaped pressure, then flung a 52-yard touchdown pass to Brian Cobbs. He took off in celebration, a Maryland lead restored on the scoreboard once more, the unlikeliest of heroes emerging from the shadows to the spotlight.

“He got thrown into the fire,” Funk said, “and he responded.”

But there had been too much time left on the clock, allowing Valentino Ambrosio to knock through the game-tying 39-yard field goal. Valentino nailed a 42-yarder in the first overtime period, too, which sealed the win.

Locksley pointed to the lack of discipline as a major factor in the loss, with his team called for 135-yards worth of penalties. That, plus a dismal first half, left much to be desired.

On top of the Union Lane Parking Garage, which overlooks the east end zone at Maryland Stadium, a smattering of fans stood, watching the proceedings on the field down below. Those fans didn’t see much in the opening two quarters — or rather, they didn’t see much worth cheering for. Still, they were the closest fans to the combined 12 punts, two turnovers and three points in the first half.

“I just felt like we were out of sync on the offensive side of the ball,” Locksley said. “I felt like there were some plays that were not operated or executed the way they should’ve been.”

In a season that has been altered immensely by the coronavirus pandemic, Saturday’s loss mirrored much of what has beleaguered teams throughout the campaign. Shortly before kickoff, the team announced Tagovailoa, linebackers Chance Campbell and Ruben Hyppolite, and defensive back Jakorian Bennett were unavailable. Defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and special teams coordinator George Helow weren’t coaching, either.

Like many programs across the country, Maryland’s season has already been impacted by the coronavirus. Last month, an outbreak that infected 30 individuals during a two-week span led to two games being canceled. Last week’s outing against Michigan was canceled, too, because of an outbreak among the Wolverines.

Back playing this weekend, additional absences due to medical reasons — the team’s official wording — influenced the outing again.

“When we went down players, it’s just the next-man-up mentality,” linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay said. “You never know when the opportunity is going to present itself, and today it presented itself for a lot of people.”

Without Tagovailoa, LeGendre started under center for the Terrapins. But the redshirt freshman struggled to produce, completing 7-of-10 passes for 42 yards and two interceptions — both of which tipped off Demus’ hands, attempting to corral inaccurate throws.

Locksley turned to Najarian, who helped Maryland drive for a field goal before the first half concluded. And in what could be Jake Funk’s last game at Maryland Stadium, the running back provided most of Maryland’s offensive production before he departed with a shoulder strain. He broke off a 44-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter, part of his 213 all-purpose yards, to give the Terrapins a 10-7 lead.

After Najarian later reestablished Maryland’s lead at 24-21, the defense needed to hold on. That unit forced one fourth-down stop, then nearly forced a game-sealing fumble recovery — overturned in a booth review.

So Ambrosio had the opportunity to kick the game-tying field goal to end regulation before winning the contest in overtime, leaving Najarian and his Maryland teammates to trudge from the field, thoughts of what might’ve been swirling in their heads.

“To lose any game is disappointing,” Najarian said. “But then to lose in that fashion hurts even a little bit more.”

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