Maryland football running back Ty Johnson was conscious of the preseason criticism.

He knew people doubted his running ability against powerhouse programs — he averaged fewer than three yards per carry against Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State combined last year — and he was aware pundits anticipated a losing season from the Terps.

So, when Johnson gave Maryland a double-digit lead at No. 23 Texas on Saturday with a 40-yard run, he placed a finger over his mouth as he crossed the goal line — a gesture aimed at critics. Johnson gained 132 rushing yards in the Terps’ 51-41 win over the Longhorns.

The performance backed his claim that Maryland, in its second season under coach DJ Durkin, was equipped to compete despite a difficult schedule.

“When people doubt you, it kind of gives you that edge,” Johnson said. “You want to prove people wrong. … We have a team that’s ready to play and people are going to see it this season.”

After Maryland’s passing game and defense stepped up against Texas, Johnson’s teammates shared his optimism for the new campaign. Those two areas doomed the Terps to a 6-7 record in 2016.

Still, for Maryland to exceed expectations this season, it will likely need another dominant season from Johnson.

Johnson led the Terps with 1,004 rushing yards and seven all-purpose touchdowns in 2016. He joins returning sophomore running back Lorenzo Harrison, coming off a 633-yard season, to form one of the strongest backfield units in the Big Ten. The duo combined for 177 yards against Texas.

Maryland’s passing game entered the season opener less established. But it left with promise of improvement.

Quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, who won the starting job over four-star freshman Kasim Hill and sophomore Max Bortenschlager, tossed an interception on his first pass attempt against the Longhorns but bounced back to throw for 175 yards and two touchdowns — both single-game career highs.

That came after an inconsistent freshman year in which Pigrome showcased his scrambling ability with 254 yards on the ground but struggled throwing the ball downfield, averaging just 4.5 yards per pass attempt.

“[He] had to play well before he was ready based on the roster and health,” offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “This should be a redshirt freshman heading into his first game, but he had to play before he was ready and that helps you improve.”

But in the third quarter on Saturday, Pigrome left the game with an apparent leg injury. Durkin did not provide a post-game update on his health.

In his place, Hill entered his first college game and secured the win with a three-yard touchdown run. The Terps are confident the first-year signal caller can step up if Pigrome misses additional time.

“There wasn’t an ounce of doubt [he was ready],” Durkin said. “He’s got that way about him, he’s got that ‘it’ factor for sure.”

Defensively, Maryland hopes another year with Durkin and defensive coordinator Andy Buh helps minimize the blowouts that plagued the 2016 campaign. The Terps allowed 427.1 yards per game last year, and gave up more than 40 points on three occasions.

Safety Darnell Savage said there’s more accountability from the defense this year, which could reduce coverage breakdowns in the secondary.

While the Terps allowed 41 points against Texas, 21 of those points came from an interception, a blocked field goal return, and a punt return. The defense recorded five sacks and a pick and held the Longhorns’ typically strong running game to just 98 yards.

“We have a better understanding of what Coach Buh asks of us and his scheme and kind of how it’s supposed to be run versus us just learning it,” Savage said. “We don’t point fingers or anything like that.”

The Terps said they’ve improved in multiple facets, and Durkin secured the program’s best-ever recruiting class. But it will still be difficult to avoid their third straight losing season even considering their upset this past weekend. After all, Maryland visits No. 2 Ohio State, No. 9 Wisconsin and Michigan State this year.

Led by Johnson, Maryland hopes to hang with those high-caliber teams, starting with the upset in Austin.

Over the past couple of seasons, the Terps watched Maryland Stadium crowds thin at the end of lopsided losses. On Saturday, though, they enjoyed the sight of an initial crowd of 88,396 at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium head for the exits.

“We’re home sometimes and we lose and our stadium is empty,” linebacker Jermaine Carter said, “so it’s a good feeling to see the opposing team [experience that].”