On Saturday at Maryland Stadium, a convoy of Scarlet Knights could be seen sprinting across the field as Joseph Petrino’s potential game-tying 50-yard field-goal sailed wide of the uprights as Rutgers (3-5) left College Park with a 27-24 overtime win over Maryland (2-3).
Shortly before kickoff, Maryland announced that sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa would be out due to medical reasons. That meant redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre would be getting his first start of the season. However, after the former four-star recruit struggled, head coach Mike Locksley elected to bring in sophomore walk-on Eric Najarian.
“I’d say after the first drive you shake the cobwebs out,” Najarian said of his first start.
“I thought [Eric] played very well, he got thrown into the fire and he responded,” senior running back Jake Funk added.
The first half was a defensive battle between the Terps and Scarlet Knights, as both teams combined for 12 punts and 241 yards of total offense. Maryland’s defense put forth a strong overall performance without its leading tackler Chance Campbell and starting cornerback Jakorian Bennett due to medical reasons.
On Rutgers’ opening possession, redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Durrell Nchami sacked Scarlet Knights quarterback Noah Vedral causing a fumble. That sack was one of Nchami’s three on the afternoon and the first of his two forced fumbles. Although Rutgers recovered the fumble, it foreshadowed Vedral’s struggles before his injury.
Later in the first quarter on 3rd and 12, LeGendre threw behind wide receiver Dontay Demus who was open on a post pattern. The ball deflected off Demus’ outstretched hands and into the arms of Naijee Jones, but the Scarlet Knights couldn’t capitalize off the turnover.
On the next possession, backed up near his own endzone, LeGendre showed indecisiveness as he held onto the ball too long, which led to a sack. Locksley and LeGendre had a conversation on the sideline after that sequence and Najarian came out to start the next series.
“As we got into the second quarter and weren’t able to convert third downs and move the ball, we turned to Eric who I have a comfort level with because of how he operates the system and how he does it in practice,” Locksley said. “When he went out there, there seemed to be a little more comfort level with how the offense was executing.”
After Rutgers missed field goal, Maryland’s offense briefly found success with LeGendre back out as the quarterback. Although, the ensuing two plays epitomized LeGendre’s struggles. After a sack, LeGendre’s throw was too high for Demus and the ball was intercepted by Christian Izien, yet Rutgers squandered the opportunity to take a lead.
At the half, Maryland held a slim 3-0 lead, courtesy of a Petrino 37-yard field goal, on a late drive inside of two-minutes highlighted by 20-yard receptions from Funk and wide receiver Brian Cobbs.
The second half was a far different story, as both offenses began to generate success. Maryland’s opening possession after the break looked promising, as Funk and Najarian showed off their legs. However, a holding call–one of Maryland’s 12 penalties on the day–negated Najarian’s fourth-down conversion and forced the Terps to punt.
“What I’m disappointed in is the plays without discipline, with the type of penalties that we had,” Locksley said. “The penalties, the lack of discipline we played with was just unacceptable.”
Rutgers capitalized by executing a four-play, 84-yard drive capped off by wide receiver Bo Melton’s 44-yard rushing touchdown. On that play, Melton used his speed to get around the edge as he sprinted down the far sideline for the score.
Maryland didn’t take long to bounce back. Funk galvanized the rushing attack, picking up all 49 yards on the Terps touchdown drive. His 44-yard touchdown pushed him over 100 yards on the day,finishing with 182 rushing yards.
The pendulum of momentum continued to swing in the second half. Rutgers answered Maryland’s touchdown with a score of their own. After Vedral was injured earlier in the third quarter, backup quarterback Art Sitkowski led a six-play, 68-yard touchdown drive. Sitkowski found running back Isaih Pacheco for a 20-yard score to give Rutgers a 14-10 lead.
However, Maryland’s offense continued to gain confidence as the third quarter came to a close. Before the quarter ended, Funk and Cobbs brought the Terps inside the 10-yard line with a 52-yard run and 19-yard reception. On that long run, Funk suffered a shoulder sprain and didn’t return.
Two plays later, after a penalty pushed Maryland back, Najarian stepped up and fired his first career touchdown pass to a leaping Demus for 23 yards, which put the Terps back in front 17-14 with 14:38 remaining.
After the consecutive scoring drives, both teams exchanged punts and Maryland still maintained a slim lead. The Scarlet Knights had possession again just shy of midfield when quarterback Johnny Langan was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on a 3rd and 2 opportunity.
Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano was ready to bring the punting unit on the field, but Maryland was called for 12 men on defense. That penalty gave Rutgers a first-down and the opportunity to continue its drive. Sitkowski finished the drive with an 18-yard swing pass to Melton for the touchdown, which put Rutgers back on top 21-17.
As they did throughout the second-half, Maryland’s offense responded. Facing a 3rd and 18 situation after taking back-to-back sacks, Najarian stepped up in the pocket and scrambled to evade pressure. He then rifled a throw across his body to Cobbs who made the catch at the 20-yard line and then broke a tackle for a 52-yard touchdown. That was Cobbs’ first touchdown of his career and it put the Terps back in the driver’s seat, leading 24-21.
Maryland’s defense picked up right where the offense left off, stalling the Scarlet Knights drive and giving the offense the ball back with 3:14 remaining. However, the Terps were unable to execute. Running back Tayon Fleet-Davis was stopped on a 3rd and 5 opportunity. As a result, Maryland punted, and Rutgers started the drive on its own 18 yard-line with 2:56 remaining and an opportunity to win or tie.
On the ensuing drive, Sitkowski threw a pass to running back Aaron Young who bobbled the ball and ultimately fumbled. The ball was recovered by safety Nick Cross, but the call was reversed and changed to an incompletion. Rutgers took advantage of the second opportunity as they continued to drive. Valentino Ambrosio drilled a 39-yard field goal to send the game to overtime as the clock expired.
Rutgers began overtime with the ball and drove inside the 10-yard line, but Pacheco was called for a facemask and the Scarlet Knights retreated to the 21-yard line. Unable to convert on either of their next two plays, the Scarlet Knights sent out Ambrosio who knocked down the 42-yarder.
Now it was Maryland’s turn on offense, but penalties and sacks boggled down the Terps once again. After Fleet-Davis rushed for 10 yards on first down, wide receiver Jeshaun Jones was called for an illegal blindside block that pushed Maryland back to the 37-yard line. Two plays later, Najarian was sacked on third down and Maryland was forced to settle for a 50-yard field goal, which Petrino could not convert.
Without their starting quarterback and key defensive leader, the Terps weren’t able to pull out the win on Senior Day. Maryland now waits to see who they face in next week’s crossover matchup against the Big Ten West.
“When the game ends that quick in overtime, it just kind of hits you at once,” Najarian said. “You just gotta get back to the locker room and deal with it. Not much other than what we could’ve done to make the outcome different is going through my head.”