Maryland-WVU: Like the old days

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

It felt like the old days when college football was played almost exclusively on sunny Saturday afternoons in front of large enthusiastic crowds just happy to be there to root on their school or their favorite team.

It was West Virginia and Maryland renewing their once-annual border-state rivalry in College Park in front of over 46,000 fans at Maryland Stadium, with the WVU fan base (note to ACC for future considerations) occupying at least 40 percent of the seats for the Mountaineers’ regional road game.

It was as though Jeff Hostetler and Boomer Esiason were quarterbacking the respective teams again, although perhaps the Terps’ Bobby Ross-era throwback uniforms from the day Boomer was the once and forever quarterback and mayor of College Park had something to contribute to that feel for the afternoon.

The fans were happy to be in an open stadium after a year away due to the pandemic and were loud and enthusiastic in supporting their teams, who provided them with a great college football game to open the 2021 season.

It was just … fun. Although West Virginia might feel otherwise in light of Maryland’s exciting 30-24 victory.

It was like Maryland-West Virginia when the games were always exciting and close. Or, as my friend Beth said, “It was like Saturday Night Live when it was still funny.”

Fans say they want to see the results of a coach’s recruiting on the field, and this was one of those games for Maryland and for head coach Michael Locksley.

Maryland won this game because it battled, overcame mistakes (particularly on special teams and untimely penalties) and took advantage of WVU mistakes and errors. Most of all, the Terps won because, through all of their grit, perseverance and opportunistic ways, the explosive, big-play capable players in offensive and defensive skill positions that Locksley recruits and is bringing to College Park made plays that WVU was unable to prevent.

It is a capacity that will give Maryland’s young defense confidence in not having to pitch a shutout every time out, and it will give the defense and the offensive line the chance to catch up with those talented skill players themselves.

As for West Virginia, I continue to be impressed by the Mountaineers defense, one of the top units in the Big 12 last season. It seemed to me that they close well and fill running lanes quickly. Their secondary certainly appeared vulnerable on a handful of plays on Saturday, due to Maryland’s big-play capability, and that proved costly. However, it appeared to me the unit was the only reason the game was as close as it was. But the offense, after a fast start on the first three possessions, was unable to do much that was productive.

WVU quarterback Jarrett Doege seems to be a decent quarterback, who is most capable of “managing a game,” as they like to say these days. Certainly, though, he doesn’t appear to have the skill level to be the focal point of any offense, much less the offense of a team that aims to be one of the top players in the Big 12 Conference.

Along with running back Leddie Brown’s fumble at the end of the third quarter that led to the Terps’ taking a 23-21 lead, Doege had two of the Mountaineers’ most crucial errors: His second-quarter interception one play after WVU came up with what looked to be a big-time fourth-down stop, and his fourth-quarter interception in the end zone on an ill-advised corner fade that set up a 60-yard touchdown pass from Terps QB Taulia Tagovailoa to Rakim Jarrett (who the WVU secondary somehow lost track of) to ice the Maryland victory.

Tagovailoa, the junior transfer from Alabama, is the key. He is the difference maker and was on Saturday, completing 26 of 36 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Senior receiver Dontay Demus Jr. had a career-high 133 receiving yards, including a 66-yard touchdown reception and run. Jarrett finished with six catches for 122 yards. Running back Tayon Fleet-Davis rushed for 123 yards on 18 carries, including a 53-yard gain in the final minute to allow the Terps to run out the clock inside the WVU 10.

These are football players with enormous football skills that haven’t played for Maryland since the Bobby Ross and early Ralph Friedgen years and, as we suggested how it might play prior to this game, it was simply too much speed and athleticism for the WVU defense, particularly given how suspect its secondary currently appears to be.

For West Virginia, it was a disappointing way to start the season, particularly against a border-state rival it has never acknowledged as being such. The Mountaineers, early in head coach Neal Brown’s third season, need to take their home game this week with Long Island University very seriously and get the offense in order and the ship sailing in the proper direction.

For the Terps, they, too, must take Howard University very seriously this Saturday night at Maryland Stadium. For the Terps, while very talented, cannot afford to offset such a potential cornerstone victory such as this one with a stubbed toe or two against a lesser opponent.

Maryland has a great opportunity to start the season 4-0 or 3-1 before the brutal Big Ten schedule gets to its meat and potatoes, and mustn’t do anything but seize such an ample opportunity here in year three of Locksley’s reconstruction of the program.

Mike Burke writes about sports and a lot of other stuff for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at mike.burke@wvradio.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT