In this decade, caring about Maryland football has been a thankless tease.
The Terps hired Randy Edsall away from UConn before 2011, and they got a couple of middling bowl appearances out of him before firing him in 2015. Nobody would ever confuse Maryland for being good in those years, or in last year’s Quick Lane Bowl debut under DJ Durkin. They’ve been a non-factor in the Big Ten East, and before that, they were a non-factor in the ACC.
But there’s always been something that’s kept Maryland fans going.
The school has always had a hand-in-glove relationship with Under Armour, which is a) great, because it’s a major apparel company run by an ex-player, and b) limiting, because that company is not Nike.
They’ve always had a talented local recruiting footprint, with plenty of good players available in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia.
They’ve signed two five-star recruits and plenty more four-star types since 2012.
They just finished building an indoor practice facility — the best in the country, they say, though lots of schools can claim that.
Both Edsall and Durkin have been able to refer to their program’s larger upside without sounding all that phony. And Durkin’s brought even more promise by signing a top-25 recruiting class in 2017 and lining up what might be the same in 2018.
There hasn’t been anything tangible, though, in the way of won-lost records or even specific good wins.
Maryland has long been a mediocrity, but it’s always carried the allure of something better. It’s been there on the horizon if we’d just squint to see it, we’ve been told.
Edsall never beat a ranked team at Maryland, and Durkin’s best win in Year 1 was against a car fire of a Michigan State squad that finished 3-9. Edsall had exactly one above-average road win, at Virginia Tech in 2013.
A 51-41 win at Texas on Saturday was that something better.
The Longhorns might not be any good, though I’m sure they’ll get there someday under Tom Herman. They were No. 23 in the preseason AP Poll. They’ll be miles away from that next week. We might learn eventually that this was a blip win against a team that finished 6-6, and maybe it’s not a program turning point of any sort. And this game was really, really weird.
You’ve got to remember how aggressively bad Maryland’s been in actual football games, though. The Terps have strung together enough wins against other mediocre and bad teams to make a handful of bowls, but they’ve generally wilted in road games of every type since Edsall came aboard in 2011. Maryland didn’t beat a Power 5 team on the road in 2016. If you don’t count Rutgers, it didn’t in 2015, either.
Maryland’s had occasional uplifting moments. But the Terps have gotten thrashed against every team they’ve played that even approximated top-25 caliber. The closest thing to an exception is when they stayed kind of close to Ohio State in 2015, before losing by 21 and firing Edsall a day later. The press conference Edsall stormed out of after that game is still the weirdest one I’ve ever attended.
The most intriguing thing now is that Maryland’s QB misery might be subsiding.
My first season as a Maryland student was 2012. In August — the most formative time for an incoming freshman to become a fan of his new team, in my opinion — starting quarterback C.J. Brown tore his ACL in fall camp. A true freshman named Perry Hills replaced him and tore a ligament. Another true freshman named Caleb Rowe replaced him and then also tore a ligament. Another QB, Devin Burns, messed up his foot.
So our school was out of quarterbacks with four games left in the season. A true freshman linebacker, Shawn Petty, filled in for the last four games. The Terps went 0-4. Petty’s passer rating was 115.2. It brings me no pleasure to report that the young linebacker has a better career rating than Rowe, was almost exactly on par with Brown, and was just a few notches behind Hills. The linebacker was a totally average Maryland QB.
I’m pretty sure Maryland no longer has terrible QBs, and I don’t know what to do with my hands.
On Saturday, Maryland started a three-star sophomore, Tyrrell Pigrome, who picked the Terps over Virginia Tech because the Hokies thought he was a receiver. He threw some strikes, but he got hurt while Maryland was up just a score in the fourth quarter.
So Maryland brought in four-star freshman Kasim Hill, who threw a 40-yard conversion on a third-and-19 and later ran for a crippling touchdown in his first appearance ever.
There’s another four-star on the roster in UNC transfer Caleb Henderson.
I don’t know if Maryland’s actually good. I just know it’s better, and that’s enough.
My expectations aren’t big, because a Big Ten East that includes Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State is not a good neighborhood to be in. It’s possible that Maryland never wins that conference, because college football’s that static a sport.
This was a big step though, because going from folding against decent teams to destroying them on the road is important. And this was a destruction. Maryland averaged 8.3 yards per play to Texas’ 5.6 and could’ve won by 21, not 10.
There were a lot of weird things about Saturday’s game. The weirdest was that it left me feeling lots of pride and little cynicism about the Maryland football team.