Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
It was boring. It was long. It was flat. And it was sloppy. So, so, so sloppy.
Maryland turned the ball over three times, was called for eight penalties, and missed both an extra point and a field goal. Against a decimated Wake Forest team missing their best receiver, most of their starting offensive line, and three key starters on defense, they managed only 247 total yards, not to mention an embarrassing 43 yards on the ground. Poor execution and weird decisions were everywhere.
But when Maryland most needed it, they received a moment of magic from their most talented player. And at least for this game, that happened to be enough.
Midway through the fourth quarter on a second-and-long, Perry Hills found Stefon Diggs on an intermediate route across the middle. Diggs made one man miss, than another, then cut it wide and received some blocks from Justus Pickett and Marcus Leak. Miraculously staying in bounds, Diggs cut it back and broke another few tackles before finally being dragged down 63 yards later, at the Wake Forest three. A few plays later, Justus Pickett would punch it in for a 19-14 Maryland lead.
It's the type of play that reminds you of how spectacular and talented Diggs really is. It showcased his absurd athleticism, in particular his change-of-direction, but more importantly it showcased some of his mental toughness. Earlier in the game, Diggs muffed a punt, giving Wake Forest a lead in the fourth quarter. To respond with that play, at that time, was something genuinely special.
For an offense that looked like doing absolutely nothing most of the day, it also happened proved to be just enough. Maryland's defense, lauded as one of the nation's premier units, lived up to its billing, holding Wake Forest to a mere 35 second-half yards; save for a few short fields and a single blown coverage, Wake Forest didn't look a thing like scoring the entire game.
And sometimes that's what you need to do. Ugly wins are still wins. They might be less encouraging, but when you're fighting to get to six victories on the year, they all count the same.
This game probably served as a wake-up call to some, me included. But I'm not writing off the season, not even writing off the potential to get to six wins. Maryland's a young team. They'll have clunkers. They'll play to the level of their opposition at times. They'll make mistakes. They'll madden you and frustrate you. They'll get blown out at least once this year; they'll probably lose another game they should've won.
But I'm skeptical that they're as bad as they looked today. Young teams are inconsistent, but they aren't necessarily bad full stop. Maybe Maryland's young team is. But after seeing how well they played West Virginia, that doesn't seem particularly likely. They're a flawed team, no doubt. But many teams can overcome their flaws with a few things. A stingy defense and a few elite, electric talents are usually two of them, and they're two things Maryland has.
Of course, there's plenty to improve on, things Maryland will have to get better at to have even the slightest chance at making the postseason. For one, the offensive line needs to continue to gel and improve. This was a major step back, getting almsot no push against Wake Forest's defensive line and giving Perry Hills little time to throw. Hills, too, is a problem: his reads are still questionable, and his arm seems to have gotten worse after that breakout game against West Virginia. And most of all they need to stop turning the ball over. Hills has started to get his interception problem under control, but they're still fumbling multiple times every game. Something that basic will kill their hopes.
The good news is that those are relatively normal flaws for young teams, and none of them impossible to overcome. Hills will be a much better player and quarterback by the end of the year than he is now; the line should be, too. Do they improve enough for Maryland to beat, say, N.C. State? I don't know. But it's not inconceivable.
More worrisome, there are still legitimate concerns over coaching. Maryland came out flat again today, which is a nasty habit carried over from last year. Worse, they still have some maddening playcalling tendencies, in particular relying on the zone-read option that never works and struggling to get Diggs the ball in space when he's at his best. Diggs, as he showed multiple times today, isn't a perfect player. But he deserves and needs more touches than he's been getting, because he's Maryland's best chance at producing yards this season.
More later, from Dave and I both. First takeaway, though: it should bring everyone back to earth, but it's not entirely a depressing experience. You know what they say: good teams find ways to win, even when they don't deserve to. Maryland, for better or for worse, did that today. Will it hold up against better teams? Probably not. But that's a bridge we can cross when we come to it.