LANDOVER — Early last month, amid chaos in the Maryland football program following the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and media reports of an abusive culture under coach DJ Durkin, the players — not given the chance to talk to reporters — had one message on social media: "Sept. 1."
The Terps wanted it to be known that they were looking ahead to the first Saturday of the season, no matter who was coaching them, who was on administrative leave or who'd resigned. They would let their playing against No. 23 Texas do the talking.
It seems the Terps' attempted tunnel vision paid off. They opened a 24-7 lead in the first half Saturday, then weathered an extended rain delay and a Texas comeback to hold on for a 34-29 win at FedEx Field, their second upset of the Longhorns in as many seasons.
Last year's upset was meant to be a statement win for the Durkin era. The rematch was more about a return to normalcy after an unimaginably disastrous offseason.
"There was a real focus on this football team to win this game," interim head coach Matt Canada said. "We talked about our room [and] our building, and everybody else outside of our building really doesn't matter. They really don't matter."
There were plenty of reminders of McNair, as there are sure to be be all year. The stadium held a moment of silence, Durkin was somewhere far away from the sidelines on administrative leave and the Terps took an intentional delay of game penalty taken with 10 men on the field before their first play from scrimmage.
But the final marker was a triumphant one. After linebacker Antoine Brooks intercepted Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger to seal the win, offensive lineman Ellis McKennie immediately grabbed the red-and-white flag with McNair's No. 79 emblazoned on it and carried it onto the field in celebration. He hadn't stop waving it as he disappeared into the tunnel several minutes later.
"I just can't say enough about our players, everything that they've been through," Canada said. "This was a win for Jordan."
The Terps defense was all over Texas for the majority of the first half, stuffing virtually every run attempt and dominating the line of scrimmage. The Longhorns gained just 60 yards on their first six drives, and 39 of those came on a spectacular diving touchdown catch from wide receiver Devin Duvernay to tie the game at 7.
To respond, Maryland turned to wide receiver Jeshaun Jones. The true freshman tallied three touchdowns in the first half — one as a rusher, one as a receiver and one as a passer — to help the Terps to their 24-7 lead.
But Texas' offense came alive late in the second quarter. Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger led two touchdown drives using an up-tempo offense, and Maryland fumbled a handoff in the end zone for a safety, narrowing the deficit to 24-22 at the half after a failed two-point conversation.
Midway through the third, the Longhorns took a 29-24 lead after a gamble from Canada. The Terps went for it on 4th-and-1 from their own 36 and quarterback Kasim Hill's sneak went for no gain, giving Texas a short field it quickly turned into a touchdown.
Maryland responded with an 11-play, 75-yard trip capped by running back Tayon Fleet-Davis' 17-yard run.
By then, the Terps defense had locked back in. While Hill and the offense struggled after a delay for inclement weather, only scoring on an 18-yard field goal in the final 14 minutes, linebacker Darnell Savage and the defense picked up the slack.
"Our motto was to stick together," wide receiver Taivon Jacobs said. "Day in and day out during camp and even now. [Today] was the result."
The Terps forced Texas into three consecutive turnovers to close the game. The first two bled time from the clock with the Longhorns trailing by five.
The third, with the Longhorns threatening to score a game-winning touchdown with under two minutes left, allowed the Terps to celebrate like they did a year ago, when it seemed they were part of a program ready to reach new heights rather than suffer tragedy and upheaval.
"It's been a long time since we played a football game," Hill said. "It was just good to be out there with your brothers."