Maryland hands Virginia its fifth straight defeat, 27-20
Terrapins build 17-0 first quarter lead, hold on for victory
The sight epitomized all that has gone awry in a miserable five-week span for the Virginia football team. Junior quarterback Michael Rocco ran onto the field in relief of sophomore Phillip Sims with his team trailing by two touchdowns. Only a sparse crowd of dispirited fans had stayed to watch the end of the Cavaliers’ 27-20 loss to Maryland Saturday in the team’s Homecomings game.
Virginia (2-5, 0-3 ACC) lost its fifth straight game to match its worst seven-game start since 2006 while Maryland (4-2, 2-0 ACC) continued a resurgent season.
“It hurts,” said sophomore running back Kevin Parks, who rushed for a career-high 129 yards. “To me, it hurts. Like I said, we go in each and every week and we feel good and we work hard and that’s what we’re still going to continue to do.”
Rocco — who ceded his starting job to Sims following the team’s 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech Sept. 29 — was called upon to steady the ship with 6:08 remaining in the game and Virginia trailing Maryland 27-13. The scene was emblematic of the very different trajectories of the two programs.
The junior quarterback provided an unexpected spark late with the type of pinpoint passing that was largely absent in his play before he was removed from his starting role and before a season that began with so much promise devolved into a salvage mission with five games left to play. The near-comeback made the many mistakes, miscommunication and mental errors that occurred throughout the game all the more frustrating.
Despite outgaining the Terrapins by 151 yards from scrimmage, allowing -2 yards rushing and amassing twice as many first downs, the scoreboard said it all: Virginia remains one of two teams still winless in ACC play.
“It’s rough but you got to stick together as a team,” Sims said. “You got to work through it. Nobody feels sorry for you; keep going about your business, keep getting better, do the things you know you have to do, and we’ll turn this thing around.”
Last season, Virginia’s 31-13 victory against Maryland Nov. 5 in the 75th meeting of the teams’ historic rivalry made the Cavaliers bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 and continued a winning streak that would bring the team one victory away from its first ACC Championship appearance in program history. In that game Rocco threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns to solidify his role as the sole quarterback for Virginia after he had shared snaps with then-freshman David Watford for much of the season. Then-second-year coach Mike London — who would be named ACC Coach of the Year — appeared on his way to leading an historically middle-of-the-road program to real and lasting relevance in the ACC.
The Terrapins, on the other hand, came to Charlottesville last year well on the way to matching the program’s worst season in 44 years under the guidance of first-year coach Randy Edsall. The storied program had 24 players transfer, won just two games and appeared likely to be downtrodden and in dire straits in the years ahead. It certainly did not look like the same school that has captured seven ACC Championships since 1974.
From the opening kickoff, it was apparent how much has changed in the past 11 months. Maryland needed just 13 seconds to take the lead as freshman wide receiver Stefon Diggs — who had been named ACC Freshman of the Week in back-to-back weeks entering Saturday’s matchup — returned the opening kickoff 100 yards to stake the Terrapins to a 7-0 lead. Sims’ third pass was intercepted by Maryland freshman defensive back Anthony Nixon, and the Terrapins cashed in with another touchdown. Maryland padded the lead with a 33-yard field goal by freshman kicker Brad Craddock and led 17-0 after the first quarter, giving Virginia a 45-0 deficit over its previous three quarters dating back to its Oct. 6 loss to Duke.
To make matters worse, the Cavaliers committed six penalties for 65 yards in the game. On special teams, they had a field goal attempt blocked, a lobbed kickoff come up well short and a punt go just 21 yards.
When the team’s young defense had opportunities to make game-changing plays, they rarely came up large. Virginia forced three fumbles, including a strip-sack by freshman defensive end Eli Harold, but recovered just one of them. Even on the lone Sims-led touchdown drive in the third quarter that brought the score to 17-10 the offense burned through back-to-back timeouts because of an injury that caused a pre-snap personnel issue, London said.
“I think it comes down to passion, energy, and playing with heart for four quarters,” senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t pull this one off. We went out there and we played to the best of our abilities, but those little things, it’s those little things that always get us.”
Despite the miscues, Virginia had a chance for a late rally because of Rocco’s play. The junior completed 5-of-7 passes for 79 yards on his first drive, capping off the whirlwind series with a touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Jake McGee to bring back memories of the pair’s clutch performance against Penn State. The Virginia defense forced a three-and-out on the Terrapins’ ensuing drive, and Rocco retook the field with 1:51 remaining and with a chance to tie the game.
“I was completely confident,” Rocco said. “There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to score a touchdown. Obviously we missed things by inches and things don’t go your way, but I’ve been confident in our team from day one.”
Rocco just missed a breakout completion to a cutting sophomore running back Khalek Shepherd in space that could have extended a drive but instead ended with four straight incompletions.
“It’s kind of indicative of the season with these plays at the most opportune times that are not being made,” London said. “It was one of those things where with outstretched fingertips, he would still be running if we made that play.”
The drive ended following a delay of game penalty on fourth down that forced the Cavaliers’ into a daunting do-or-die fourth-and-15 play. With no timeouts remaining, Maryland used three kneel downs to end the game.
Virginia will face Wake Forest (3-3, 1-3 ACC) Oct. 20 looking to halt its five-game losing streak. London hinted strongly in a teleconference with reporters Sunday that Sims will remain the team’s starter for that contest.