Matt Canada held a scrunched-up napkin in his hand as he fielded questions Saturday evening in the Gossett Football Team House. He rubbed his forehead and his eyes. His nose was still red, apparently still raw from the four-plus hours on the sideline of the 52-51 overtime loss to No. 9 Ohio State in late-November temperatures.
There were a lot of positives to take from his team’s near-upset one week after a disappointing defeat at Indiana that had seemed to spell the end of the Terps’ chances at a bowl game. Canada’s squad clearly didn’t consider Indiana as the ending, and came up a failed two-point conversion away from proving the doubters wrong.
Many of the bright spots came from young players — Anthony McFarland, who ran for 298 yards and two touchdowns; Dontay Demus, who reeled in a 56-yard completion; and Jeshaun Jones, who caught a touchdown and was a couple feet away from snagging the game-winning two-point attempt. Freshmen rushed for or caught 441 of Maryland’s 535 yards on offense.
So Canada believes, contrary to popular belief and what may seem like common sense, Maryland is a program with promise.
“This program is on the rise. Everybody knows that if you actually pay attention,” Canada said, despite a 2019 recruiting class ranked No. 88 in the country, one spot ahead of Harvard, per 247sports. “There’s a bunch of talent on the edge out there, those wideouts can play. The running backs can play.”
With one week left in a tumultuous campaign, the question remains: Will Canada rise with it?
“I’ve got a day-to-day deal,” he said. “It’s been the deal since whenever that day started, and it’ll be the deal until this season’s over.”
Canada’s face was red because he spent the game on the sideline, something he never did before this season, when he was merely an offensive coordinator. When coach DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August, Canada was thrust into the interim head coaching position and has remained there for all but one day — when Durkin was reinstated and fired in quick succession.
“It’s an extremely tough situation,” linebacker Tre Watson said. “You come in just expecting to call plays and run the offense, and now he’s got to manage a million other things on the fly. So, he’s done a great job with that and he’s just allowed us to be comfortable doing what we’re doing.”
In that time, Canada has led his squad to a 5-6 record, with impressive performances against then-No. 23 Texas and then-No. 9 Ohio State offset by duds against Temple, then-No. 19 Iowa and Michigan State, among others.
And shortly before Maryland took the field Saturday, athletic director Damon Evans told the Washington Post his work has started in finding the next head coach.
“We’ve got to find someone who understands our community, our locale,” Evans told the Post, “someone who understands the situation that we’ve just gone through.”
That seems to make two coaches obvious candidates: Canada, and Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, a Washington, D.C., native who served as the Terps’ offensive coordinator and interim head coach between 2012 and 2015.
Locksley knows the College Park area and routinely poaches area talent for the Crimson Tide. But he’s 3-31 as a head coach, first at New Mexico and then at Maryland after taking over after Randy Edsall was fired.
Meanwhile, Canada has navigated the off-field turmoil while producing an on-field result that wasn’t consistent, but had two notable high notes against the Longhorns and Buckeyes.
“Last week, everyone in the country said we were done, right?” Canada said. “Fricken season’s over. Shouldn’t even play these last two. Our guys will be fine.”
Canada was brought in to run the offense, and while he’s maintained that’s the side of the ball where his focus remains, the results haven’t always been promising. The Terps managed 100 total yards against Michigan State — a mark McFarland passed within his first three carries Saturday — and only scored via defense and special teams against Temple.
But as university President Wallace Loh likes to say, Canada has steered a ship through some of the rockiest waters imaginable and weathered the questions and uncertainty along the way.
“You have to find a middle ground where everything we’re doing is helping us get better as a team and nothing is detracting from what we’re doing,” Watson said. “He’s done a great job of that.”