Virginia wasted a valiant all-around effort at Maryland, coming up just short in a 27-26 defeat. In a back-and-forth finish, the Terps escaped with a win when Alec Vozenilek's 42 yard field goal went wide right. Despite an improved offensive performance, finishing with 505 total yards, the result was a third straight loss, dropping UVA to 2-4 (0-2 ACC) on the season.
The game is likely the last one to be played between Virginia and Maryland for a long, long time, as the Terps prepare to bolt for the Big Ten. A sparse, yet occasionally enthusiastic, Maryland crowd at rainy Byrd Stadium was treated to a closely contested affair, featuring a total of 5 lead changes.
The dramatic endgame began when, with UVA punting leading 23-20 and 8 minutes to play, the ball grazed a Maryland player, leading to a Wahoo recovery and a field goal. Maryland regained possession and looked to be in serious danger when a fumbled pitch led to a 3rd and 21. However, Caleb Rowe's jump ball to a double-covered Deon Long was caught for a 47 yard gain when neither Wahoo defender could locate the ball; Maryland took the lead, 27-26, on a touchdown strike two plays later.
The Hoos and Terps traded punts, and Watford and co regained possession with no timeouts and 2:34 to play. A pass interference penalty on 3rd and long launched a quick and successful drive, keyed by a pristine 21 yard pass to Darius Jennings. With a 1st and 10 at the Maryland 27 and one minute to play, the Hoos had arrived at the outside of Vozenilek's range, as he filled in for the injured Ian Frye.
Coach London decided this was close enough. The Hoos ran the ball on first down, ran the ball on second down, and didn't even attempt to gain positive yards on third down, asking Watford to move the ball to the left hash mark. Predictably, Vozenilek, who has filled in admirably at kicker thus far, failed to make a career long 42 yarder.
The late-game decision making was especially disappointing considering the strong overall effort in every facet of the game. Offensively, the running game finally clicked, as the offensive line consistently opened holes and got strong pushes for Kevin Parks, who finished with 112 of the team's 242 rushing yards. Khalek Shepherd had a big game as well, adding 81 yards on 10 carries.
David Watford was erratic at times, finishing 27 of 44 for 263 yards, but threw no interceptions, as the Hoos had a turnover-free day. He continues to develop chemistry with TE Jake McGee, who caught 8 passes for 114 yards. Overall, just 7 of Watford's 27 completions went to wide receivers. 11 went to tight ends, 8 to running backs, and 1 to quarter backs (when Watford caught his own deflected pass). The often-conservative effort wasn't always pretty, but the offensive line's performance made it work. For the first time all season (taking out VMI), the offense played well enough to win.
The Hoos didn't play their best defensive game, mainly because the unit allowed too many big plays. Five different Terps had plays of 35+ yards, three on passes and two on runs. A unit that was so fundamentally strong earlier in the year simply missed too many tackles; the presence of Demetrius Nicholson was also missed in the secondary. However, the unit got a big late stop when it mattered, and did a generally good job of containing Maryland star Stefon Diggs. The defensive highlight of the day was an Eli Harold sack and forced fumble with the Terps driving in the second quarter.
Despite the positives, it's difficult to take anything positive from the day as a whole. The Hoos lost to rival Maryland, wasting a chance to kick them on their way out the door. And the loss was an entirely preventable one, as a chance to win was bungled by Mike London once again. Up 23-20, the Hoos chose to kick a field goal on 4th and 1 from the 6; some fans criticized the decision, but it's an extremely defensible one. He also decided to kick a field goal in the first quarter, on 4th down inside the 1 - that's a less defensible decision (as the expected value of going for it is likely more than 3 points)...but at least it's reasonable in a game that could have been a low-scoring one. There's no way to defend not attempting to move the ball any further than the Maryland 25 yard line with plenty of time remaining. The decision lost the game, and the coach is responsible.
Asked about the final drive, Mike London told Virginiasports.com, "I wouldn't characterize it as being conservative. The biggest thing is to put yourself into a position where the playmakers can help extend the drives or get those first downs or get those points. You've got to give Maryland credit, they did a good job defensively on some things we tried to do. It came down to one last opportunity and I guess it was wide right."
At 2-4, the Hoos now must finish the season 4-2 to make a bowl game. What seemed like a reasonable goal three weeks ago is now appearing increasingly unlikely after disappointing losses to Pitt, Ball State, and now Maryland. All Virginia can do is go back to Charlottesville, take advantage of any momentum they have on offense, and put it all together next week against Duke. Things look bleak now, but Wahoo fans have learned that the mood of a season can change very quickly. Winning cures all ills. But, for now, losing, especially to Maryland, is as painful as ever.