By Logan Hill
Jarret Doege skyed a high pass towards the back of the end zone looking for the touchdown, but Maryland defensive back Jakorian Bennett leaped up high and took it away, allowing Maryland to cling to their slim two-point lead.
“I was just trying to make a play to change the game honestly,” Bennett said. “We had our goals as a defense. Takeaways was number one on that list.”
It was a pivotal turn of events for Maryland football in their first home action in front of fans since 2019. Spurred by a potent offense and a stingy secondary, the Terps defeated the Mountaineers 30-24 to open its 2021 season.
“It was great to see the offense finish on the field the way that they did,” coach Mike Locksley said.
Maryland came out of the gates fast, running up a nine-play drive in just over three minutes of game time. Playing sideline to sideline, the offense moved quickly before stalling out just on the outskirts of the redzone. Joseph Petrino connected on his first field goal of the season, from 45-yards out, to give Maryland a 3-0 lead from the jump.
West Virginia came out faster, answering Maryland’s first scoring drive with a touchdown. On 3rd and 3 from Maryland’s 21 yardline, Leddie Brown caught a swing pass from Jarret Doege and skirted up the sideline for his first touchdown of the Mountaineers’ campaign.
But Maryland wasn’t finished in the first. Surviving almost losing the ball on a botched kick-off return, Taulia Tagovailoa threw his first touchdown pass of the season, finding Dontay Demus Jr. on a deep route for a 66-yard touchdown, putting Maryland back in front early.
“I feel like we got them into the position we wanted them to be in and they were in the coverage we wanted them to be in,” Demus Jr. said. “I just won my one-on-one matchup.”
Maryland’s offense came out for their next drive the same way they did the last. It ended the same way too, with Tagovailoa tossing a screen pass to tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, who found paydirt from 20 yards out to put Maryland up 17-7.
But the Terps’ early advantage was short-lived.
On the ensuing kickoff, Winston Wright Jr. broke into the open field for a 98 yard return to Maryland’s two-yard line. Leddie Brown scored on the next play, and the Mountaineers drew back closer, trailing by three after one.
Following the track meet that was the first quarter, things slowed down for Maryland, as they stalled out from their own side of the field, prompting their first punt of the game. West Virginia drove all the way down the field, largely in part to senior running back Leddie Brown, who walked in untouched from 9 yards out, completing a first half hat trick. And just like that, the Mountaineers were back in front, leading 21-17.
The Terps stalled out again on their next drive and gave up possession, but Nick Cross intercepted Doege one play into the Mountaineers’ next drive to give the ball right back to the offense. Maryland almost gave it up again on that drive, but Wright Jr. mishandled the punt return for West Virginia and the Terps recovered, giving them new life from the West Virginia 34.
“The two trends we’ve seen in college football [are] big plays and turnovers, those are the two keys,” Locksley said. “We had some explosive plays on offense, and we got some turnovers, that really helps us.”
That drive ended with a Joseph Petrino 51-yard field goal attempt that clanked off the right upright and gave the ball back to West Virginia with 2:59 to go in the first half.
Maryland forced a three & out, getting the ball back with just under two minutes to play before halftime. Following two Tagovailoa-Demus Jr. connections and a first down run by Fleet-Davis, the Terps were knocking on the door. They wound up stalling out inside the five, settling for another Petrino field goal, a 21-yarder to cut the lead to 21-20 at the half.
The start of the second half was vastly different from that of the first. Both sides traded punts to open things and neither side was able to find an offensive rhythm. In the third quarter alone, there were six combined punts, compared to just four in the entire first half.
Following a short punt from Maryland’s Anthony Pecorella, West Virginia was threatening to add some insurance to their slim lead, but not before Brandon Jennings forced a Leddie Brown fumble and Lawtez Rogers fell on top of it, to give Maryland the ball back, still trailing by a point.
On their first drive after the turnover, Maryland marched all the way to the West Virginia eight yardline, but settled for three to go up 23-21 with 9:16 to go.
West Virginia threatened to take the lead right back, quickly moving all the way to the Maryland 13, but Bennett’s end zone interception gave the ball back to the offense.
“That was my first game with fans,” Bennett said. “It was surreal, just to feel that and just to make a game-changing play like that for my team.”
Moments later, Tagovailoa found Rakim Jarrett for a 60-yard touchdown, his third of the day and second of at least 60 yards.
“Rakim is as advertised,” Locksley said. “A guy that we count on as one of our better playmakers.”
Tagovailoa finished the day with 332 yards and 3 touchdown passes, looking comfortable in his fifth career start for the Terps.
“I thought he was a little antsy early, looking at the rush,” Locksley said. “He really really settled down and one of the things that helps him is knowing we’ve got those playmakers out on the perimeter.”
The Mountaineers would add a field goal on their next drive, but the Terps ran out the remaining 2:53, and secured their first win of 2021.
It was a refreshing win for a team looking to kick off a new era of Maryland football, as they weathered a slow third quarter and made enough plays on both sides of the ball to start the season 1-0, and pick up their first victory against West Virginia since 2013.
“Great game for us for our first game to really see who we are,” Locksley said. “We created an identity as a team that’s going to fight for four quarters and not let adversity get us down.”
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