Maryland quarterback Eric Najarian had his back against the wall after getting sacked on two consecutive plays, down by four to Rutgers with just six minutes left to play. The walk-on third-string play-caller lined up behind center on third-and-19, cool and collected.
Rolling out to his left to avoid pressure, Najarian lofted a pass off his back foot. With a defender draped on his back, wide receiver Brian Cobbs brought it down for the first down, but wasn’t done there. The junior slipped the defender at the 20, taking it all the way into the end zone for a Maryland lead late in the fourth.
However, it wouldn’t be enough to secure Maryland the victory, with costly penalties playing a huge role to allow Rutgers to score a field goal on the ensuing drive to tie the game and send it to overtime, where kicker Valentino Ambrosio once again came up clutch.
The same couldn’t be said for the Maryland offense, which couldn’t get in field goal range on the next drive, resulting in a 27-24 loss.
“We can’t be a team that plays to the emotion or plays to the scoreboard,” head coach Mike Locksley said. “We just got to play consistently for four quarters — five quarters today. And we didn’t get that from us.”
Just minutes before the start of the game, the team announced that starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was out for the crucial game, the result of which would determine whether Maryland finished above .500 or not. That left Najarian and Legendre as the primary two options for the Terps, and both struggled to start the contest.
“Eric became the guy that gave us the best chance to win,” Locksley said. “We started with Lance and we sputtered on offense and felt like we just weren’t in sync, whether it was the communication, the reads, the operation just wasn’t there.”
In the first quarter, Maryland gained just nine first downs and punted five times. The only drive in the opening period that didn’t end with the special teams unit coming onto the field was a result of an interception by starting quarterback Lance LeGendre.
The quarterback targeted Dontay Demus Jr. over the middle for a long gain on second-and-18, but threw behind the senior and fell into the hands of a Rutgers defender.
Locksley, who has often emphasized the importance of player-driven leadership and energy on the sidelines, was visibly upset with Legendre’s negative response to the mistake, with the head coach shouting, “Put on your helmet or get off the field.” shortly after. Najarian appeared on the team’s next drive.
The sophomore walk-on struggled in his first two drives for Maryland, and was replaced by Legendre near the end of the second quarter. But once again, Legendre threw an interception in his first drive back on a deflection.
As the two quarterbacks struggled, the Terps’ defense kept them in the game, despite defensive leader Chance Campbell, linebackers Ruben Hypollite II and Ayinde Eley (announced prior) and defensive back Jakorian Bennett all ruled out. Defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and special teams coordinator George Helow were also absent from the Maryland sideline in the contest.
The unit held Rutgers to just 23 yards and one first down in the first quarter and X total yards in the game, forcing eight punts and three forced fumbles, all of which the Scarlet Knights fell on, to keep Maryland up with a 3-0 lead heading into halftime. Rutgers got things going pretty early in the second half, though, flipping the switch pretty quickly against the Terps’ defense to score two touchdowns in the period.
That wasn’t the scenario for the Terps’ offense, however, as Najarian’s struggles to throw the ball continued. Maryland needed someone to step up, and that came by the way of running back Jake Funk.
After taking the handoff from quarterback Eric Najarian at the Rutgers 44-yard line with around four minutes left in the third quarter, Funk hesitated to scan the field. Once he found a hole up the middle, the senior was gone down the left sideline for the Terps’ first touchdown of the afternoon with four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The huge score was part of Funk’s stellar game in his last appearance in College Park, in which he ran for 180 yards on 17 attempts, despite an early exit due to what appeared to be shoulder pain.
As the offense started to gain some life, so did Najarian, with the walk-on quarterback scoring two touchdowns and throwing for 107 yards in the fourth. But despite the sudden surge, the rest of the team’s costly penalties combined with a high-pressure overtime in his first-ever game appearance was simply too much overcome.
“There’s no what-ifs or what could have been,” Funk said of the defeat. “I mean, it’s either you perform or you don’t.”
Three Things to Know
1. Maryland missed its star players - Four players were ruled out of the game just minutes before kickoff for Maryland, two of whom have been crucial for the Terps all season. Tagovailoa averaged 252.75 in his four starts behind center for Maryland, while linebacker Chance Campbell has solidified himself as one of the best defender’s in the Big Ten this season with a team-high 43 tackles along with a fumble recovery and 1.5 sacks. Hypollite II, Eley and Bennett also missed the game on the defensive end for Maryland, who combined for 43 tackles in the team’s first four games.
“The whole year coach Locks told us it was going to take more than one team to be ready, so every day we came out to practice, everybody competed, everybody put forth,” linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay said. “When we went down players, it’s just a next man up mentality. You always got to be ready, for you never know when opportunity is gonna present itself.”
2. Eric Najarian got his first yardage as a Terp. Though he ultimately couldn’t get it done in the end, the sophomore led Maryland down the field at the end of the second quarter for the team’s first points of the game and totaled 218 yards in the air in his first career appearance in a Maryland uniform.
“It’s always a special moment, you kind of have to stay ready,” Najarian said. “There’s not much time when you get thrown out there to think about what you’re really doing. You just go out there and do it.”
3. Maryland’s secondary was crucial - Though they didn’t record a turnover in the game, the Terps’ secondary played lights out against Rutgers. Freshman Tarheeb Still led the way with three big knockdowns on potential first downs that hindered any momentum by the Scarlet Knights, who were held to 56% in the air for just 163 yards.
Still’s biggest tackle of the game came against Rutgers’ last hope of the fourth quarter, throwing it on third and long with just over three minutes remaining as he tackled Pacheco in the open field. The key stop wouldn’t be enough though, as Rutgers’ special teams earned the win.