For a moment in Maryland football's 63-17 win over Towson on Saturday, it seemed former All-Big Ten cornerback Will Likely was back on the field, gliding down the sideline with the ball tucked under his arm.
Instead, it was junior safety Darnell Savage, wearing Likely's No. 4, who returned a second-quarter interception 75 yards for a score. He switched from No. 26 in the offseason as a tribute to his former teammate and close friend.
Savage does not have the seven career interceptions or four total touchdowns Likely recorded in College Park, but his score was reminiscent of the highlights Likely once produced. After sprinting downfield with blockers leading the way, Savage slowed to a near stop at the 25-yard line, causing a Towson player to fly past him and fall to the turf. The play offered a glimpse of Savage's potential this season.
"You're only going to get so many opportunities as a defensive back to make that kind of play," Savage said. "Anytime you force a turnover on defense, the first thing that goes through your mind is you want to go score."
While Maryland's defense has been inconsistent through two games, allowing 58 combined points, that kind of big-play ability has shaped the momentum of its two wins.
After the Terps fell behind, 7-0, at Texas on Sept. 2, linebacker Jermaine Carter took down quarterback Shane Buechele for a nine-yard sack. Two plays later, cornerback J.C. Jackson intercepted a pass near midfield, setting up quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome's game-tying touchdown run.
Maryland also returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown and forced a fumble in the win. Savage's pick-six had a similar effect Saturday.
The Tigers had cut the Terps' lead to 14, and were approaching the 50-yard-line after stopping Maryland on fourth-and-goal.
But when Towson quarterback Ryan Stover faked a short pass to wide receiver Jabari Greenwood in the second quarter, Savage didn't bite. Instead, he anticipated a double move, predicting Greenwood would go deep after briefly turning back to the line of scrimmage.
He guessed right, picking off the overthrown pass and taking it back for a touchdown.
"[Stover] gave a little pump, and I saw his shoulder go that way," Savage said. "So I took off." After the interception, Likely tweeted the number four in recognition of Savage's play.Savage said wearing Likely's number has inspired him to become a defensive leader, helping others improve as Likely once coached him.
"It's one of those things where I feel I have to be the older guy now," Savage said. "I have to set an example for all the younger guys because I am now an upperclassman."
In addition to Savage's pick, nickel corner Antoine Brooks recorded an interception against the Tigers as part of the Terps' improved defensive display.
Linebacker Shane Cockerille said Maryland's defense slacked at times versus Texas by not pursuing the ball, allowing the Longhorns to score 41 points. He felt that lack of focus did not appear in its second contest.
"[Durkin] was harping all week on effort and playing a full 60 minutes and playing tough," Cockerille said. "So I think that was the big difference coming out second half."
Durkin emphasized there's room for improvement after allowing an FCS opponent to amass 309 yards. But compared to last season, when the Terps surrendered 427 yards per contest, the coach believes the defense is on the upswing.
If Savage continues making instinctive plays in the secondary, the unit can prove dangerous for opposing offenses.
"It's two totally different teams," Durkin said of the defense. "We've shown through two weeks what we're capable of doing."