Maryland football is 1-0 after beating No. 23 Texas for the second consecutive season. The Terps outlasted the Longhorns in a dramatic football game Saturday, forcing turnovers on each of Texas’s last three possessions in a 34-29 win.
That’s an exciting story by itself. But this game can’t exist in a vacuum. Too much has in College Park. A life has been lost. Careers are up in the air. Important decisions will follow anticipated revelations.
It’s a complicated mess. For the moment, though, it’s bliss.
The backdrop is tragic.
Jordan McNair died June 13, just over two weeks after reportedly suffering a heatstroke during an organized team workout. The day after his death, Maryland announced an external investigation into the program’s health and safety protocols. The following two months were largely quiet; nothing more than a few details trickled out here and there.
The floodgates opened Aug. 10, when ESPN published harrowing details of the fatal workout and followed with a report on a “toxic culture” within the program. Outcry ensued. Durkin was placed on administrative leave less than 24 hours after the reports. The school parted ways with strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. The futures of university president Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans—who was promoted from the interim role less than two weeks after McNair died—are murky.
These developments overshadowed the team’s preparation for the season, as they should have. At best, a player died after not receiving proper emergency treatment from the university-hired medical staff. At worst, McNair’s death was an indirect product of an unhealthy culture that festered in the football program for years.
Football players and coaches often refer to any off-field stories as “distractions,” but that label does everything happening here a severe injustice. The Terps still carry heavy hearts, and now they’re being guided by Matt Canada in the interim (even though he’s still the offensive coordinator). The players can’t escape these things; they just have to play through them.
Maryland players announced their McNair tribute plans last week, from helmet decals to moments of silence to a locker encased in glass. The Terps came out with no right guard on their first play of the year, taking a delay of game penalty that Texas declined. They waved a flag emblazoned with McNair’s No. 79 before and after the game.
The tributes will continue. The fallout and uncertainty will linger. But it’ll be hard to forget how Saturday’s contest unfolded.
Last year’s Maryland-Texas game was berserk, with 11 touchdowns—including four non-offensive scores—and 92 points on the scoreboard. This game had a lot of the same craziness, but followed a slightly different recipe.
Both games featured Maryland jumping out to a big lead—the Terps went up 27-7 last year and 24-7 Saturday. The Longhorns came back in the second and third quarter both times, taking a five-point lead into the fourth quarter in this instance. And Maryland finished strong both times, going on a crucial 14-0 run in last game’s fourth quarter and outscoring Texas 10-0 in Saturday’s final frame.
This game had no blocked field goals or pick-sixes, but offered its own brand of absurdity. Jeshaun Jones was everywhere, starting with a 28-yard rushing score on a jet sweep. He then finished off 65-yard catch-and-run for a receiving score, the kind you’d expect for a wide receiver. Then he threw a 20-yard touchdown to Taivon Jacobs. This was all in Jones’ first career game; the touchdowns were on his first three offensive touches.
And then there was the weather delay. Officials stopped the game with 14:25 left on the clock due to thunderstorms in the area; the game resumed 86 minutes later. Football basically never has weather delays. Nobody really knew what to do. Maryland’s marching band took the opportunity to perform on the concourse. When the players returned, the field was so soggy that every play gave reason to be worried about injuries (to our knowledge, nobody on either team suffered anything serious during the game).
The conclusion was much more dramatic this opening weekend than last. Maryland had opportunities to put this game away and didn’t. Texas had opportunities to take the lead late and turned the ball over each of its last three possessions.
The most noticeable difference, though, was the emotion that followed. Players and coaches hugged while fighting back tears. Beating Texas—a traditional powerhouse with four national titles and its own damn TV network—comes with enough emotion on its own, but Maryland had to overcome so much more.
“Every win is great, but the team just stuck together through the whole course of everything that’s happened,” Jacobs said. “And we stayed together. That was our motto. And we stuck by it.”
It’s a tough task ascribing meaning to this football game. Nothing that happened Saturday lessens the importance of anything surrounding it. At the very least, though, it’s a long-awaited positive twist in the saga.
My day-after story last time was about Maryland announcing itself as a serious up-and-coming program. The potential for a breakout year remains if the Terps stay healthy, but there will be time to discuss that as the season continues. It’s too early to evaluate Canada as a head coach, especially since he’s still focusing primarily on his offensive coordinator duties.
One game is too small a sample size on which to judge teams anyway, no matter the opponent. But Maryland showed Saturday that it won’t fold in the midst of all this. That alone is encouraging.
“We’re really a close-knit family,” quarterback Kasim Hill said. “Everything that’s happened this summer has brought us closer together, and this is the closest I’ve been with my teammates and coaches.”
This is what sports are about. In no other realm can a group of young adults rally together in the face of adversity and triumph on this kind of stage. There’s a pride echoing throughout College Park and all of Maryland right now that hasn’t been present in months, or maybe since this time last year.
Maryland experienced loss in the worst way this summer. At least for the moment, the Terps can soak in a triumph.