From quite literally the moment both teams took the field, Saturday's game between Maryland and Penn State was an ugly affair. The teams skirmished before the coin toss, pushing, shoving and trash-talking in the middle of the field. When the teams' captains met at midfield for the toss itself, Stefon Diggs, P.J. Gallo and Sean Davis refused to shake hands with Christian Hackenberg and Penn State's leadership.
That the Terps (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) were docked 15 yards for their coin toss display was fitting in a game during which penalties played an outsized role from start to finish. The play was often unsightly, too, as Hackenberg, C.J. Brown and the two offenses seemed to engage in a battle of one-upmanship over which unit could move the ball the least.
But as time wound down, Maryland's defense and special teams lifted the Terps, and the offense put together just enough to lift them to a 20-19 win over Penn State (4-4, 1-4) before 103,969 at Beaver Stadium.
Brad Craddock kicked a 43-yard field goal with 51 seconds left on the clock, vaulting Maryland from two points down to a one-point edge it would not relinquish, on an afternoon where, for so long, so little went right on offense.
"Our slogan is 'by any means,' so we got it by any means," wide receiver Stefon Diggs said.
With just over two minutes left, the Terps forced a Penn State punt and called timeout. Will Likely, who had a first-half interception, set up Maryland's winning drive with a 15-yard return to Penn State's 42-yard line. Wes Brown, who fumbled away Maryland's best chance to score points during the third quarter, picked up 17 yards on a catch and two short runs. And then Craddock stepped up, with his first crack at a game-winning field goal since his 33-yarder against N.C. State on Homecoming 2012 clanked off the left upright at Byrd Stadium.
"That kick, as much as it sucked I missed it, it changed my life in a way," Craddock said. "It made me work harder, train harder. I've been waiting for this one for a long time."
He got his shot, and he hit it, as his visiting parents from Australia looked on from the upper reaches of the stadium.
The kicker set out a maximum range of about 50 yards for himself in warmups. The grass was thick, Craddock said, and the wind in the vast expanse of Beaver Stadium unpredictable. His teammates said they never doubted him, as any good teammates would say, but Craddock was 12-for-12 coming into the game. Perhaps there never was a reason to doubt him, even as the wind swirled in the cold, central Pennsylvanian air – even in a year when college kickers have missed game-turning kick after game-turning kick.
"We were very confident," said linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr., who forced the fumble on a Penn State kick return that set up an earlier go-ahead score for the Terrapins. "Brad hardly ever misses. He never misses in practice, so I had confidence, and I'm sure everybody else on the team had confidence."
The Terps were down, 16-7, after three quarters. After a Craddock 25-yard field goal and the Penn State fumble Carter forced on the ensuing kickoff, they took a fleeting lead on a 1-yard dive from Wes Brown. They squandered that lead, though, when Sean Davis allowed Penn State's Geno Lewis to get free for a 33-yard reception that set up a Sam Ficken field goal. That set up the frenetic 6:52 that ended with Craddock's heroics.
The finish was fascinating, but it obscured what had been a breathtakingly poor display of offense by both teams. Brown and Hackenberg combined to complete 36 of 80 passes. Brown was sacked six times and Hackenberg four. For Maryland, Brown the Quarterback was under duress for much of the game, and Brown the Running Back had two damaging fumbles, while Brandon Ross had another.
"We needed to come back and play football the way we play it at the University of Maryland. It might not always be pretty, but we're going to play hard," Edsall said. "And we did that today. We played hard. It wasn't pretty, but we played hard. And that's what put us over the hump."
The Maryland offense totaled a gruesome 2.9 yards per play, but that was better than the 2.6 Penn State cobbled together. Brian Stewart's defense was every bit as good as Mike Locksley's offense was bad, pressuring Hackenberg all day and, with a few notable exceptions, locking down Penn State's best receivers. In sum, the Nittany Lions gained just 219 yards and scored, of course, the 19 points.
"I thought our defense played outstanding," Edsall said. "They have been maligned the last couple weeks, but they raised up another level today. I really thought we had the one bad series."
On that series, Hackenberg resembled the excellent freshman he was last year, not the embattled signal-caller behind a terrible offensive line he currently is. After Wes Brown's fumble near midfield, Hackenberg hit DaeSean Hamilton and Kyle Carter for a series of first downs. Then he lofted a nice touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James over the outstretched arms of safety-turned-cornerback Sean Davis, starting there for an injured Jeremiah Johnson.
Davis led the team with 11 total tackles, but he was party to Penn State's two biggest offensive plays of the game: the James touchdown reception and Lewis's long catch on third-and-23 that let directly to three Penn State points. Opposite Davis at cornerback, Will Likely snared his fifth interception of the season on a miscommunication between Hackenberg and Hamilton in the first half. In Davis's place at safety, reserve Zach Dancel thrived.
But the defense's efforts started from the front, where Maryland's linemen and linebackers overwhelmed an abysmal Penn State offensive line, shuttered the Nittany Lions' running game and harassed Hackenberg for the most of the day.
"When he has to move his feet, he's not as productive," Edsall said of Hackenberg. "I thought our guys did a really good job of putting some hits on him and getting him to move his feet, and I think it affected him."
Andre Monroe had one official sack and another takedown of Hackenberg that functioned the same way. Keith Bowers, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil and Yannick Ngakoue sacked him, too, and Cudjoe-Virgil intercepted him and returned the ball for a touchdown before a questionable roughing call on Ngakoue nullified all of it.
Penn State ran for an even 1-yard average, which doubled the half-yard it averaged against Ohio State a week ago. Left tackle Donovan Smith, the most experienced member of the Lions' offensive line, didn't play, and those who remained were basically a colander for members of Maryland's defense, letting them seep through the line barely impeded.
"It's an issue," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "It was an issue before, and we knew that last week. When you lose your starting left tackle, it becomes more of an issue."
Maryland's offense did not get to 200 yards. Brown's accuracy problems, the running backs' ball-security problems and the offensive line's push problems all reared their heads, as did a rash of drops by Maryland's receivers. Those are problems the Terrapins will need to address as they head into a bye week and then a home date with a superior Michigan State team.
After the game ended, Maryland's budding series with Penn State – perhaps a rivalry, depending on who was talking – was a popular conversation topic. How couldn't it be, when the Terrapins' captains took the extraordinary step of not shaking hands with Penn State's before the game even started? When the teams took unsportsmanlike and personal foul penalties in the game's opening moments? When Edsall called this win – against a team that had lost three straight games entering it – the biggest of his entire tenure in College Park?
"Let the rivalry begin now," Edsall said. "There should be a trophy for this game. It's a bordering state. Let's have some fun. Let's really make it competitive ... That's what it's all about. You couldn't ask for something better. If I was a fan watching this game, you got your money's worth."
Penn State and Maryland, of course, hadn't played in two decades prior to Saturday. Sure, a serious rivalry could develop (Edsall wants the game to have its own trophy), but one game isn't normally an animosity make, even one as unusually rough-edged as this one. The Terps' captains unfortunate ignorance at the opening coin toss will surely grab headlines, but an emotional decision by three players – which the team has since apologized for – is only a flashpoint.
"I think it could become a rivalry. It is one win for us. I am 1-0 against Penn State; this team is 1-0 against Penn State," said C.J. Brown, who hails from outside Pittsburgh, just a few hours from State College. "Obviously, the past is the past, but going forward it is definitely a border battle."
For now, it is a win, and an important one: The Terps are bowl-eligible for the second-straight season under Edsall, and they've got a real shot to finish with eight wins in their inaugural Big Ten season. And maybe, if things break right, they'll have started something that develops into a long-term advantage, against an opponent who had previously beat them 35 of 37 times on the field and countless others on the recruiting trail.
"The only way you beat teams in recruiting a lot of times is if you beat them on the field," Edsall said.
"When you beat people on the field, it's going to help you in recruiting, because it makes a statement. It makes a statement to those kids. I would think this is going to help us big-time. I know this; we're not going to lose any ground from it," he said. "That's for sure."