- The Washington Times
Saturday, October 22, 2022

COLLEGE PARK — For the first 30 minutes of a beautiful Saturday at SECU Stadium, Maryland’s offensive line didn’t give Billy Edwards Jr. — who started at quarterback in place of the injured Taulia Tagovailoa — much time to work. Of the Terrapins’ six first-half drives, only two made it past their own 28-yard line.

Part of that was due to absences that, in addition to Tagovailoa, went deep into the Maryland depth chart. Starting left guard Mason Lunsford didn’t play, setting off a game of musical chairs: Right guard Spencer Anderson took Lunsford’s place, center Johari Branch shifted right in Anderson’s stead, and freshman Colton Deery got his first staring nod over the ball. Running back Antwain Littleton II (and his five touchdowns this year) also didn’t play, due to what Maryland coach Mike Locksley said was a hyperextended knee sustained in warmups.

Starting linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II also didn’t play for the third consecutive game due to an ankle injury, which was the least of Maryland’s problems in the defense’s second level.

Standout freshman Jaishawn Barham missed his first game of the season due to an injury from last week at Indiana, as did graduate transfer Vandarius Cowan. A linebacking potluck resulted, with Ahmad McCullough, junior-college transfer Gereme Spraggins, and freshman Caleb Wheatland sharing time. 

The absences allowed the Wildcats to take the initial advantage on the ground. Northwestern ran for 111 yards in the first half after Maryland had only allowed 149 total in its last three games combined.

Then, the second stanza started, and the Terrapins looked more like their 2022 selves.

Edwards threw for 166 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 66 more, and Roman Hemby had a career day, rushing for 172 yards and three touchdowns, helping Maryland outlast Northwestern, 31-24 on homecoming Saturday.

“I wouldn’t say that the plan was to just line up and run the ball,” Locksley said in dealing with Tagovailoa’s absence after being carted off the field last week in a win at Indiana. 

“Our offensive staff did a really good job of getting the ball on the perimeter with the outside zone and just gapping-up inside. And, I mean, Roman … he came through big. Big runs, big-time plays.”

Hemby ran like a grown man — and one with a skillset that can translate to playing on Sundays — defying tacklers with ease on his first two touchdown runs of 14 and 18 yards. The Edgewood, Maryland, native then popped off for another home-run score when the Terrapins needed it the most. 

After the Wildcats had marched 72 yards in less than 3:00 to tie the game at 24, Hemby had a 70-plus-yard effort of his own in store. The redshirt freshman moved cleanly between blocks by left tackle Jaelyn Duncan and receiver Rakim Jarrett, made one cut at the next level, and left Northwestern defenders flailing their arms in his wake. 

“When we’re clicking, and you’re able to see that type of play, you kind of put all the pieces together, and there’s nothing really special,” Hemby said of his open path through the Wildcats’ defense en route to a 75-yard, game-winning touchdown. “They’ve really worked really hard to make sure that they open up holes for us and get to that second level. So it was just kind of cool to see it all come together. And in that time of the game.”

Edwards put it more simply what it was like to watch Hemby cook.

“He was on fire,” Edwards  “So it made my job a lot easier.”

Edwards found out on Wednesday that he would be getting the start, with Locksley saying Maryland’s staff didn’t get many reps from Tagovailoa in practice but that he was available as an emergency option. The Burke, Virginia, native performed admirably in leading the Terrapins (6-2, 3-2) to their 10th-straight output of at least 27 points.

“Those first couple of drives, I’m just trying to get my feet underneath me,” Edwards said. “Trust my eyes, trust my feet, stick to my training, make make the correct reads. And I think after it was the first drive that we finished in the second quarter, when we flipped the field at the end of the first quarter, I felt that was when I got my most comfortable.”

His comfort level showed on Maryland’s four touchdown drives. On those, Edwards completed 10-of-13 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown pass — finding a wide-open Rakim Jarrett late in the third quarter with a rainbow spiral of a ball 30 yards down the left sideline to give Maryland its first lead of the game at 24-17.

“I don’t think there was a defender within 10 yards,” Edwards said. “I just tried to give a nice little air [under the pass] and not throw him out-of-bounds, let him catch it turn and get in the endzone like he did.”

With the advance notice that he was starting, Edwards was able to get plenty of friends and family around the Capital Beltway from Northern Virginia to see his first start as a Terrapin.

“I had a good amount of people from [alma mater] Lake Braddock, a couple of high school teammates, a bunch of mild coaches, a bunch of my family,” Edwards said. “It was had a good crowd. I obviously tried to get that situation figured out earlier in the week so I didn’t have to worry about it as the week went on.”

That included his father, Billy Sr., a high-school coach for more than three decades in Northern Virginia, whom Billy Jr. asked for a critique when he saw him after the game.

“I told him’, Be honest, how was it? Good, bad, and ugly,” Edwards asked his dad. “He was like ‘You’re fine, a lot to learn from.’”

“So, typical dad response,” Edwards deadpanned, “especially as a coach.”

For the third-straight game, Maryland’s defense generated multiple turnovers, with second-half interceptions by safeties Dante Trader Jr. and Beau Brade key to slowing Northwestern and quarterback Brendan Sullivan, who, like Edwards, also got his first start of the season.

Locksley said the switch to Sullivan meant the Wildcats (1-6, 1-3 Big Ten) played differently than what they had shown on tape going into the week. With the linebacking group thinned, it meant the Terrapins base formation for most of the game was nickel, along with the rotation of McCullough, Wheatland, Spraggins, Fa’Najae Gotay, and others.

“We rotate a bunch of players on defense, and we come in with that mindset,” Locksley said of his defensive depth. “We have a staff meeting on Saturday where we determine how many plays we want guys to play because understanding that this is this is a long, long season and we’ve got to have everybody prepared. We recruit all these guys to come in to play for us.” 

The win for the Terrapins means bowl eligibility for the second straight season. It’s the earliest date Maryland has reached the six-win mark since 2001 and the first time the Terrapins have been bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons since 2012-13. They’ll get a bye next week to heal up and reflect — just slightly — on the accomplishment.

“This team and fan base should be really proud of being able to get that accomplished,” Locksley said. “And what it does now is it earns us an opportunity every week to take the next step and the opportunity to get better and better.” 

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.