COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It seemed unlikely that Richmond would keep punting to Will Likely. But they did.
And it cost them. The Maryland junior flashed his All-America credentials with a school and Big Ten record 233 yards on punt returns. He finally got a touchdown on one in the fourth quarter on a review – hey, that was fine because everybody wanted to see it again – and Maryland rolled to a 50-21 victory over the Spiders, who had briefly led in the second quarter.
But Likely, who sat up five Maryland scores with punt or long kickoff (2-for-63 yards), led the onslaught that saw the Terrapins (1-0) score 37 unanswered points and take command in winning their seventh straight season-opener.
“They don’t do a good job of getting down and we thought we could do some things,” understated Likely about the Maryland return game. “After like the third (return) I said I wouldn’t get that many opportunities but he kept kicking it.”
And Likely kept catching it and running it back down Richmond’s throat. He broke the Big Ten record of 201-punt return yards set by Nile Kinnick – yes, that one the stadium is named for – set in 1939. No one is quite sure who had the Maryland single game punt return yardage record, but Likely’s 233 yards on the day would rank 12th all-time on the Terrapins season list.
“I don’t know that are enough superlatives to use in regard to Will Likely,” said Maryland coach Randy Edsall. “He might have had a national record if we didn’t have the penalty on the one (return). He’s a joy to be around, a joy to coach.”
Richmond coach Danny Rocco, who once coached at Maryland, and was also on Tom Coughlin’s Boston College staff with Edsall, had a different view. “I love (punter) DJ Helkowski, but for the last three punts I told him to punt it out of bounds, but it didn’t get out of bounds. I guess we just have to practice punting out of bounds a little more.”
Rocco sounded like he could have used one of the beers on sale at Maryland concessions for the first time.
Likely said an offseason regimen of working on catching the ball without looking at his hands helped him keep his head up and his focus downfield.
“The blockers did a good job of not letting guys get downfield quickly and giving me a shot. Once I saw grass, I just went.”
All summer, Likely practiced fielding punts with a tennis ball in each hand so he could concentrate on the other parts of the return. Edsall also talked about how much film Likely watched.
And it is likely that Maryland could have squashed the Spiders even without those heroics. The Terrapins rushed for 341 yards, a three-year high and the most since 388 against North Carolina in 2012.
“(The offensive line) opened up the holes and I was just hitting it and reading it,” said Brandon Ross, who had the biggest chunk of all those yards. “Our line got a lot bigger and stronger in the offseason and that showed today.”
And how. Ross ran for a career high 150 yards on 18 carries, and he didn’t play in the fourth quarter. No matter, Wes Brown had 74 yards on 13 carries, and he got edged by fourth-quarter highlight reel runner Ty Johnson, who gobbled up 74 yards on 13 rushes including a slam-the-door 2-yard score at 6:26 to put the final Maryland points on the board.
“It’s a mentality, creating a mentality with our own team of mental toughness and physical toughness,” said Edsall. “To know that when we need to run the ball, we can run the ball.”
And the Spiders, while a Football Championship Series foe, aren’t exactly chopped liver though their defense got chopped up. Richmond (0-1) was ranked No. 18 in the preseason and coming off a 9-5 season that saw the Spiders advance to the second round of the playoffs.
The Spiders even took a lead early in the second quarter, sophomore quarterback Kyle Lauletta making his first start and scoring from four yards after a long-strike set up the score. Brian Brown got behind Likely and turned safety A.J. Hendy around and hauled in a 52-yard pass from Lauletta. A five-yard face-mask call on the tackle moved the ball inside the five. One play later, Lauletta put UR up 14-13 at 10:35.
Terps Battle Back
The Terrapins were up to the challenge, mounting a march that saw Ross rip off three runs of 11-or-more yards, and Perry Hills, making his first start at quarterback since 2012, get a nine-yard run. But a tough chop-block call on tackle Ryan Doyle, with the ball inside the 10, stalled the march. The 15-yard penalty moved the Terps back to the 22, and Hills under threw Levern Jacobs open at the goal line, and then missed Brown in the flat. D.J. Moore had a 10-yard reception but that only moved Brad Craddock closer and his 30-yard field made it 16-14 at 4:10.
A long Likely punt return to the 2-yard line was called back on an illegal block penalty but the Terrapins came through in the two-minute offense. Hills saw a corner blitz coming, adjusted his protection and hit Malcolm Culmer, who spun away from a tackle and completed a 37-yard scoring play (his first career TD) with one minute left in the half. Craddock’s extra point attempt hit the left upright square and bounced down but the Terps would take a 22-14 lead to the locker room.
Hills was 12-of-21 for 138 yards, an interception and two touchdowns in shaking off the rust. “I was happy to be back out there,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy who likes standing on the sideline. That’s not where I want to be. I was just happy to come today and get a win.”
“I thought he managed the game very well,” said Edsall. “What he has to do is go out there and throw the ball, not aim it. He has to go out there and hit the open guys and be more decisive with his decisions that he wasn’t decisive with. That caused him to pull the string a little bit. You can’t go out there and worry about ‘am I perfect,’ you just have to go out there and play.”
Caleb Rowe, the offseason favorite to win the QB job, got some mop-up work, missing on his only pass but picking up nine yards on one run, and the Johnson touchdown was an option play to the true freshman.
The first half ended, Quinton Jefferson sacking Lauletta for a nine-yard loss, the Terps’ first sack of the game but the beginning of a deluge, as Maryland finished with four QB traps, two by Jefferson and one apiece for Likely and Jesse Aniebonam.
After yielding 155 total yards in the first half, the Terps allowed just 32 in the third quarter in taking charge. “We started zoning up on them and we wanted to make the quarterback beat us with his arm,” said linebacker Jermaine Carter, Jr., who had a team-high eight tackles in his starting debut in the middle. “In the beginning they caught us in a couple of bad matchups and they drove down the field. We made adjustments to not do those things and it worked for the best.”
Jefferson, playing tackle in the new 4-3 defense, saw it the same way. “I see the system definitely working and the times they had big plays it was people not doing what they were supposed to be doing. When we do what we’re supposed to do, we’re pretty good. I think we can do some big things.”
It’s unlikely people look much beyond Likely’s big day but the Maryland rushing defense allowed just 2.1 yards per attempt, while that revamped offensive line pounded out 7.6 yards per carry – both major and needed improvements over a year ago.
Second Half Surge
The Terps came out of the locker room in the third quarter much steadier than in an up-and-down first half. The defense forced a three-and-out, and Likely had a 19-yard punt return to give Maryland good field position. The offensive line seemed to want to make a statement, Ross banging for eight yards and then 20 through big holes. Hills scrambled away from trouble and hit Amba Etta-Tawo on the sideline for 15 more yards, the junior walking a tightrope.
Ross picked his way 21 yards down the left sideline virtually untouched for a score at 12:12 to make it 29-14. The play put the senior over 100 yards for the sixth time.
Likely had a 47-yard punt return midway through the third quarter but despite starting on the UR 16, Maryland didn’t score when Craddock shockingly pulled a 28-yard field goal attempt wide left.
“We found out Brad Craddock was human today,” said Edsall. “I know he’s disappointed but I haven’t lost any confidence in him. He was trying too hard. I thought he was moving a little too quick on the extra point. He’s such a perfectionist, we just have to get him back in sync but he’ll be okay.”
And with the Maryland defense now clamped down on the Spiders, the Terrapins got another chance in a drive that spanned the late third and early fourth quarter. Brown slammed over from the one to cap a 10-play, 57-yard drive and make it 36-14 with 12:55 to play. The Terrapins ran the ball on nine of the 10 plays on that dominating march.
Likely added his signature play, taking a punt 67 yards for a score at 10:30 to make it 43-14. He cut through would-be tacklers, broke a tackle and danced down the left sideline before diving from the two-yard line into the end zone. Officials initially spotted the ball out of bounds just inside the 2-yard line, but then overturned that decision on review. “I definitely wanted that one because they called the first one (another long return out of bounds close) back,” he said. “So they told me I had to get another one, and I promised them I was going to get another one. We just made something happen.”
With the Maryland bench cleared, Richmond had a 52-yard drive, Seth Fisher scoring from 16 yards at 3:22 to put the final points on the board. Fisher, a preseason All-American and the Spiders’ leading rusher last year, only played in the second half, the result of oral surgery this week.
Much of this game, particularly the second half, probably seemed like a trip to the dentist for Richmond.
Slower Out of the Gates
The Terrapins were shaky on the opening kickoff, the ball dropping and rolling free inside the 10 but once Likely got his hands on it, he made something happen, taking it back 42 yards. Ross ripped off 15 yards up the gut on the first play and soon after, Brown had a 17-yard run on a third-down sweep. Hills had fullback Kenneth Goins, Jr., open for a score but his pass from 16 yards was slightly under-thrown and bounced off a Spider helmet incomplete.
Craddock kicked a 34-yard field goal to end that first drive.
Hills had a lot of errant throws early but settled down to manage the game well enough, though Maryland’s red zone woes were somewhat troubling, settling for four field goal attempts. “I don’t think our execution was as good as we needed it to be,” said Edsall.
The Terps forced a three-and-out on Richmond’s first possession and Likely set Maryland up with a 22-yard return to the Spider 44. On a play-action pass, Hills looked deep for Levern Jacobs but Spider safety David Jones slid over to make a leaping interception at the 5-yard line.
The Maryland defense forced another punt and this time punter Helkowski dropped the snap and rushed a low 35-yard punt that Likely fielded on the bounce an hauled back 15 yards to the 39-yard line. Hills completed a third-down pass to Moore for 13 yards. On the next play, on a reverse with a quick lateral pass from Hills to Levern Jacobs, Jacobs went 23 yards for the first touchdown of the season. Maryland led 10-0 at 6:14.
Richmond found their legs, though, with a 10-play 75-yard drive, Jacobi Green leaping in from one yard with 48 seconds left in the first quarter to make it 10-7. The big play on the march was a fourth-and-one pass from Lauletta to Green for 19 yards inside the 15. That same play was snuffed in the second half.
Likely was held to a 21-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, but Hills took the Terrapins on a nine-play drive, aided by his key third-down, 13-yard scramble. Brown had a 14-yard run but then was stopped twice in a row for just two yards. Hills’ third down pass to Levern Jacobs was batted away. Craddock banged home a 31-yard field goal to make it 13-7 at 12:34.
Green led UR with 23 yards rushing on seven carries. Brown had four receptions for 68 yards.
For Maryland, Levern Jacobs had two catches for 32 yards; Moore, two for 23; Etta-Tawo, two for 21 and true freshman Avery Edwards, two for 12 yards. Culmer, Tavion Jacobs, Derrick Hayward and Brown all had on reception apiece.
Another freshman, Nicolas Pritchard, was called on to punt just once but delivered a 43-yarder with no return, another area Maryland may have upgraded this season.
The Terrapins return to action with another home game, the second of these first three in a row, against a tough Bowling Green squad, Sept. 12 at noon.