The roller coaster of a football game between Maryland and Rutgers Dec. 12 came down to a 50-yard field goal in overtime. The Terps had lost 8 yards on a mess of an overtime drive. Wide receiver Jeshaun Jones had been flagged for an illegal blind-side block, and walk-on, third-string quarterback Eric Najarian had just been sacked on third-and-long. Kicker Joseph Petrino was suddenly the last hope of extending the game.
Petrino missed wide left, and a shorthanded Maryland fell 27-24 to Rutgers, falling to 2-3 in the 2020 season.
The Terps, playing just their second game in five weeks, announced shortly before kickoff that star quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and three pivotal defenders — linebackers Chance Campbell and Ruben Hyppolite II and cornerback Jakorian Bennett — were inactive, reportedly due to positive COVID-19 tests. Maryland’s offense sputtered throughout the first half but found a rhythm with Najarian in the second half. Rutgers, though, managed to keep pace and force overtime as time expired in regulation before coming out on top in the extra period.
“To lose any game is disappointing,” Najarian said, “but then to lose in that fashion hurts even a little bit more.”
Maryland had just one scholarship quarterback at its disposal with Tagovailoa out, giving redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre the start. LeGendre completed 7 of 10 passes for 42 yards but had two poor throws turn into deflections and interceptions. Najarian, who entered in the second quarter and played the entire second half, went 12-of-23 for 218 yards and two scores.
The true offensive star was senior running back Jake Funk, who piled up 180 rushing yards on 17 carries through three periods. But Funk suffered an injury on a 52-yard run late in the third quarter and never returned in the fourth. He said postgame that the injury was a shoulder sprain and he’ll “be fine,” but the Terps missed him down the stretch. Backup Tayon Fleet-Davis finished with 26 yards on 10 carries, including just 4 yards on three attempts as Maryland failed to put the game away in the waning minutes of regulation.
Maryland led 462-379 in offensive yards but gave plenty of yards back with penalties. The Terps were flagged 12 times for 135 yards — 11 for 120 in the second half alone. Included in that tally were six personal fouls, the most costly of which came on Rutgers’ final drive in regulation and Maryland’s overtime possession.
“It wasn’t our players or our play that hurt us — it was the lack of discipline,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “I’ve still got to go watch the tape, but I’m just disappointed just because of when they happened. … The lack of discipline we played with [is] just unacceptable.”
The first half was primarily a punting exhibition with football plays sprinkled in. In 16 first-half possessions, Maryland and Rutgers combined for 12 punts, two interceptions and two field-goal attempts. The Scarlet Knights had the first scoring opportunity, but kicker Valentino Ambrosio yanked a 35-yarder wide left. Maryland opened the scoring on the following possession, reaching the 15-yard line before settling for a 37-yard Joseph Petrino field goal.
Both offenses found a rhythm in the third quarter, though. Wideout Bo Melton gave Rutgers the lead with a 44-yard touchdown run on a double reverse, then Funk answered with a 44-yard score of his own later in the period. Artur Sitkowski entered at quarterback for injured starter Noah Vedral on Rutgers’ next drive and capped a 68-yard march with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Isaih Pacheco. Maryland entered the fourth quarter trailing 14-10, but Najarian found Demus for a 23-yard touchdown with 14:38 remaining to put the Terps back on top.
Melton scored another go-ahead touchdown on an 18-yard swing pass with 7:59 left (it was ruled a run, his second score on the ground in two carries). A little more than two minutes later, Najarian found Brian Cobbs for a 52-yard touchdown after avoiding what would have been Rutgers’ third consecutive sack. Maryland’s defense forced a Rutgers turnover on downs on the ensuing possession, but three short runs and a punt gave the Scarlet Knights the ball back at their 18-yard line with 2:56 remaining and no timeouts.
Perhaps the biggest turning point came on a second-down pass from Sitkowski to Aaron Young, who put the ball on the turf after being hit. The play was initially ruled a fumble, which Nick Cross recovered for the Terps, but overturned to incomplete after replay. However, a blindside block during the return against Mosiah Nasili-Kite was still enforced, giving Rutgers a first down. The Scarlet Knights kept marching, and after Sitkowski was brought down on a scramble, Rutgers rushed its field goal unit onto the field as the final 20 seconds ticked away. Ambrosio connected from 39 yards out to tie the game as the clock struck zero.
Both overtime possessions were hampered by offensive penalties. Rutgers drove inside the 10, but a facemask on Pacheco pushed the Scarlet Knights back to the 21. They never threatened a touchdown again, settling for a 42-yard Ambrosio field goal.
Maryland, though, never recovered from Jones’ blindside block on the first play of its overtime period, which set up first-and-22. Najarian found Jones for a 9-yard gain on first down, but followed with an incompletion and a 5-yard sack. Maryland had no choice but to attempt the field goal, and Petrino missed wide left.
The Big Ten is playing games next week, but Maryland doesn’t yet know who it’s playing or where its game will be. While the plan was to play a cross-division opponent, perhaps the Terps will instead make up a missed game against Michigan or Michigan State. It’s possible Maryland won’t even get the chance. But sitting at 2-3 after losing in heartbreaking fashion, the Terps hope they’ll get another chance.
“After the game, it was a little depressing,” linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay said. “Some seniors might never put on pads again. Hopefully we have another game coming up next week so they get the opportunity to at least put on pads one more time. Probably a home game would make it better so we could redeem ourselves, get a win for our seniors.”
— Locksley said after the game that Maryland learned Tagovailoa would be unavailable the morning of Dec. 11, and that LeGendre and Najarian had both taken reps with the twos throughout the season (although Najarian mostly ran the scout team this week). Najarian, who posted a 27-8 record as a three-year starter at DeMatha, impressed in his first college action and figures to be the favorite to start next week with Tagovailoa still sidelined, if there is a game.
— Funk entered this game second in the country in yards per carry, averaging 7.8 across three games (336 yards on 43 attempts). His 180 yards on 17 rushes Dec. 12 brings the senior to 516 yards on 60 carries, an average of 8.6 per pop. He’ll actually lead Buffalo’s Jarret Patterson at the end of the day — Patterson entered with 8.6 but couldn’t quite maintain that pace against Akron. Whether or not Funk finishes this shortened season leading the nation in this stat, his dominant senior season after two ACL surgeries is a victory in its own right.
— Maryland wasn’t just missing players in this game; defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and special teams coordinator George Helow were both out after reportedly testing positive as well. Defensive backs coach Henry Baker, in his first year with the Terps, called defensive plays. Maryland held Rutgers scoreless with 103 yards of offense in the first half, but the Scarlet Knights racked up 276 yards and 24 points in the second half. Gotay led the unit with 10 tackles, while cornerback Tarheeb Still broke up three passes and Nasili-Kite tallied 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Maryland couldn’t come up with a stop at the end of regulation, though, giving Rutgers an opportunity to break hearts when all was said and done.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics