There are two different perspectives Maryland football fans may have about the team three games into the 2016 season.
Some can look strictly at the Terps record. At 3-0, Maryland has matched its win total from last season in nine fewer games. In coach DJ Durkin’s first season, the Terps are already receiving votes in the AP and USA Today Coaches Poll. They’ll enter their Big Ten opener Oct. 1 against Purdue undefeated.
Others can look deeper into Maryland’s schedule, analyzing the programs the Terps outscored, 93-27, in their first two games. First was Howard, a below-average FCS team, and next was a Florida International squad projected to finish near the bottom of Conference USA. Over the weekend, Durkin’s squad needed double overtime to down Central Florida, who finished last season 0-12.
After a disastrous 2015 campaign, the perception of Maryland should be somewhere in between. This team isn’t going to challenge Michigan or Ohio State, but it isn’t going to finish winless in the Big Ten, either.
Durkin is rebuilding this program, and the Terps took another step forward Saturday, when a close win over the Knights gave them experience in facing hardship before the conference schedule begins Oct. 1.
‘When you look at our team and say ‘We held strong through all that,’ to me, that’s a great sign for us,” Durkin said. “That was the first sign of ‘OK, we have adversity. How are we going to respond?’ And we responded the right way.”
A six-point win against the Knights — projected to finish last in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division — was far from a promising result for a squad that plays in a conference with four of the country’s top 11 teams.
The Terps lacked a passing game. They missed two field goals. They didn’t commit any turnovers, but they didn’t capitalize on their four takeaways, either.
Yet with the game on the line, Maryland managed a victory in a tough environment. Finding ways to win when you aren’t playing your best is a skill that comes with experience, and the Terps did so for the first time under Durkin on Saturday.
“That’s what teams like this do,” defensive back Will Likely said. “We fight. We fight through adversity. It was definitely a hard-fought game today.”
Never was the Terps resiliency more apparent then in the overtime periods.
With UCF down seven and facing a 3rd-and-16, the Terps could have ended the game in the first round with two stops but instead allowed freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton to scramble before throwing a 31-yard touchdown.
The Maryland defense, which came back onto the field to start the second overtime, forced Milton into his third lost fumble minutes after allowing the game-tying score.
Then at the 25-yard line and needing just a field goal, quarterback Perry Hills started the drive with a one-yard run. He remained on the turf, and the trainers tended to his shoulder, which a Knights defender drove into the turf during the tackle.
Hills had to sit out the next play, leaving freshman quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome to take over under center. Whether Hills would have came back in or stayed on the sideline remains a mystery because Pigrome took his first and only snap, put several Knights defenders on skates and raced to the end zone, putting the exclamation point on an undefeated nonconference slate.
The Big Ten portion of the schedule gets more difficult with home games against the second-ranked Buckeyes and No. 8 Michigan State to pair with road trips to No. 4 Michigan and No. 20 Nebraska. At some point during those contests, the Terps will likely play from behind. Even against lesser competition, Maryland might trail.
Had the Terps cruised past UCF on Saturday night, the new coaching staff wouldn’t have known how its players would react to facing a deficit.
Instead, the six-point win, albeit against a middling foe, helped eased those questions entering the Big Ten slate.
“We’re slowly upping the ante,” running back Kenneth Goins Jr. said. “Slowing approaching league play.”