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Maryland 24, South Florida 17: Terps survive turnover-plagued performance in Tampa

Maryland suffers six turnovers and an overall lackluster effort, but hangs on to beat USF on the road.

C.J. Brown fires a pass for Maryland during Saturday's game at South Florida in Tampa.
C.J. Brown fires a pass for Maryland during Saturday's game at South Florida in Tampa.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

On a day when seemingly nothing went right, only special teams shined brightly for Maryland.

Kenneth Goins blocked a fourth-quarter punt, which was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by Avery Thompson, to rescue Maryland from a less-than-lackluster showing Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, where the Terps survived South Florida, 24-17.

A win is a win, of course, but it was a day where the good news barely served as a blip on the radar against a tidal wave of trouble signs in a turnover-plagued performance against a two-touchdown underdog in an empty stadium.

The Terps turned the ball over six times, including two Brandon Ross fumbles and two C.J. Brown picks, leaving its defense on the field for way too much of the game.

At the outset of the game, it was hard to imagine it would turn into such a struggle. Things turned bad for the host Bulls when starting QB Mike White suffered an arm injury on the very first offensive play and never returned. Who came in off the bench? Why, Steven Bench, of course. Get it? Bench and bench? In any case, the USF pass attack was already hampered by the absence of top receiver Andre Davis, and White's quick exit was another big blow to the home team.

Maryland's offense didn't have such personnel issues, but that doesn't mean the Terps were without early issues. C.J. Brown threw a duck of a deep ball intended for Stefon Diggs that was easily picked off to kill the first drive, then a Brandon Ross fumble abruptly ended the the second.

Both turnovers squandered really strong early field position for the Terps, but Will Likely grabbed that real estate back quickly with a 46-yard punt return that allowed Maryland to start its second straight drive in USF territory. Brown capitalized this time and showed off the better version of his arm, firing a well-placed bullet to Marcus Leak in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

One 3-and-out defensive stand later for Terps, however, things turned ugly for Brown again. During a designed QB keeper, Brown coughed up the ball, which was recovered and returned 21 yards to the end zone by USF's Auggie Sanchez.

Once again, Brown redeemed himself quickly. On the third play of the ensuing drive — which began with another terrific return, this time by Diggs — he found Leak on a crossing pattern and Leak was off to the races for a 44-yard score and a 14-7 lead.

USF woke up on offense with its first good drive of the game, a 7-play, 63-yarder that Bench punctuated with a C.J.-Brown-vs.-Va.-Tech-esque dive across the pylon that tied the game at 14. This was an ominous segment of of the game for Maryland, which surrendered some much-needed confidence and momentum to USF's offense and backup QB. Any hopes of a Maryland laugher were pretty much dashed at this point.

That point was made even clearer on Maryland's next drive, which resulted in the fourth giveaway of the first half and the second Brandon Ross lost fumble. It meant a little too much field time under the Florida sunshine for the Maryland D — which had played well, particularly against the run — and USF continued moving the ball more effectively. It was for not, though, as the drive stalled in the red zone, then a botched snap derailed a short field goal attempt that would've put the Bulls ahead for the first time.

By the intermission, however, the Bulls finally had the lead that they probably deserved after all those Terp turnovers. A short Marvin Kloss field goal gave USF a 17-14 lead at the break and Maryland headed to the locker room searching for answers.

Those answers were nowhere to be found. Maryland stalled on its first drive, then survived another missed USF field goal. When the Terps regained possession, Wes Brown gained some traction after replacing the fumble-plagued Ross, but the turnover bug struck C.J. Brown again when he threw his second pick of the game — a very ill-timed one on 3rd-and-long in the red zone. His pass was behind Diggs, who couldn't reel it in, and it instead became an easy take-away for USF.

Disaster then struck early in the fourth quarter, when Stefon Diggs went down after catching a pass, grabbing his lower back. Diggs was helped off the field, but later returned — and every Maryland fan on the planet exhaled a little bit.

The overworked Terrapin defense solidified in the fourth quarter and got a stop midway though, setting up the punt that Goins blocked and Thompson grabbed and took to the house. It was one of many nice special teams plays for Maryland, which didn't allow any big returns while getting a couple of long ones from Likely and another from Diggs.

Sean Davis came up with a huge defensive play with five minutes left, getting big pressure and a big hit on Bench off a safety blitz. Bench's throw was altered and wobbled into the hands of Alvin Hill, who made a diving catch near the sideline in USF territory for an interception. That put the Terps in position to kill some clock, which they did, forcing USF to burn a timeout.

Unfortunately, the turnover bug struck again when Albert Reid coughed up the Terps' fourth lost fumble of the day and seventh fumble overall.

That set up USF with late life, a long field and a two-minute drill to try and save their hopes, but the Bulls went 4-and-out, allowing Maryland to kill the remaining clock.

Maryland (2-0) continues on in its first Big Ten campaign with an unblemished record, but the narrative around this team — darkhorse, sleeper, Cinderella — will shift. The Terps will have to prove next week against West Virginia, possibly as underdogs now, that the USF game was nothing more than a one-off. Terp fans can only hope that's the case.

Observations

1. It's not time to hit the panic button, but it's close. There's just no good way to spin this performance. Everything about the game was bad from a Maryland perspective. The turnovers, the offensive gameplan, the quarterback play, the running back play, the fact that this was a bad USF team coming off a 1-win season and an awful Week 1 performance against Western Carolina. Maryland was favored by two touchdowns and should be at least touchdowns better than USF. Instead they didn't look better at all. Inexcusable. This was an utter misfire out of the gate and throughout. Nobody was prepared to play. Maryland had no attitude and no execution. Gotta be fixed.

2. C.J. Brown is never going to be a good passing quarterback at Maryland. Reactionary? Maybe. A pretty negative thing to say? Sure. But it's warranted. Brown was straight poor in Tampa on Saturday. He threw several bad passes, made some poor decisions, took some bad sacks, and most importantly, failed to secure the football — the most important thing any offensive player can do, most notably a sixth-year quarterback. Brown has now had two weak showings against the two weakest opponents on Maryland's schedule. He's a mobile, veteran leader who can be a key weapon against superior B1G teams, like he was in Blacksburg last year, but if he can't get the job done the rest of the time against the type of teams Maryland should be beating, then it's time to think about either becoming a more run-oriented team or else giving a serious gameday look to one of the team's younger QBs.

3. Marcus Leak may not be discussed enough when the topic is "deadly Maryland receivers." Leak is listed at a sturdy 6-foot and 210 pounds but he looks even bigger than that. Leak showed a little bit of everything in his two touchdowns. On the first, which he caught in the back of the end zone, he went airborne, displayed soft hands by reeling in a hot pass that was high and outside, then showed field awareness by getting a foot down before momentum pulled him out of bounds. His second TD was more about route-running, and just running in general. He burst hard across the middle through two defenders, broke open, hauled in Brown's pass, then took off for about 35 yards after the catch, showing formidable speed for a big receiver. For as long as Diggs and Long are here and healthy, Leak is going to be an afterthought for opposing defenses, who will habitually single-cover him and probably without a lot of safety support. He showed vs. USF that he can't be taken for granted.