By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
LANDOVER, Md. — The sound coming from the Texas sideline in the final minute was the one of a balloon bursting as the Longhorns played their worst when it counted the most in a 34-29 season-opening loss to unheralded Maryland Saturday before an announced attendance of 47,641 at FedEx Field.
Needing a touchdown to win after Maryland’s Joseph Petrino’s 18-yard field goal with 6:48 to play, Texas had three possessions ... and each of them ended in a turnover.
Instead of leaving the swampy eastern suburbs of the nation’s capital with a hard-fought victory, the Longhorns are scratching their collective heads, wondering how this game got away from them after charging from behind and taking control early in the third quarter.
It was the second straight year that the Terrapins, one of the least-respected teams in the Big 10 Conference, beat a ranked Texas team to begin their campaign.
“A lot of people are going to say that this feels a lot like last year ... and it doesn’t to me,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “We have a lot to learn from and how to start and finish better. The slow start is on me. Our guys worked so hard and wanted this to be perfect. We have to find a way to relax our guys coming out of the tunnel and to have them play loose.”
After going without a turnover over the first 54 minutes of the game, quarterback Sam Ehlinger was intercepted on a short pass when his arm was brushed as he threw. That was not the end, though, as the Texas defense forced a three-and-out and got the ball back to Ehlinger with 4:35 to play, only to have running back Tre Watson fumble while running after a catch with 2:43 to play.
Texas had yet another chance, taking over with 2:12 remaining. The Longhorns converted a fourth down on the ensuing march, but Ehlinger uncorked a second, and ultimately, damning interception, while trying to get the ball to Lil’Jordan Humphrey as he was blanketed by three Maryland defenders.
“We started slow, in the middle of the game we finally found our stride and were who we needed to be, but at the end we didn’t finish,” Ehlinger said. “When it’s the last minutes of the game and you are down by five, you have to takes some chances. Taking chances on third and fourth down in those situation was the only way we were gonna win, and I understood that.”
Maryland showed it was ready and well-prepared on its opening drive, moving 67 yards in six plays to Jeshaun Jones’ 28-yard touchdown run on a wide receiver sweep play that caught Texas flat-footed.
The Longhorns answered with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Ehlinger to Devin Devernay on which Devernay fully extended on the dead run to snag the football just before it hit the turf in the end zone.
The Terrapins went back to Jones to regain the lead, as the true freshman took advantage of a Texas blitz and broken coverage in the Longhorns’ secondary to haul in a 65-yard touchdown pass from Hill.
Maryland added to its advantage early in the second quarter via a Joseph Petrino 33-yard field goal.
Jones showed he can do it all, throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass to Tavion Jacobs midway through the second quarter to grant the Terrapins to a 24-7 lead.
True freshman running back Keaontay Ingram got the Longhorns back in the game with 5-yard scoring run with 6:51 to play before halftime at the end of a six-play, 69-yard drive.
Maryland then handed Texas two points on a safety when the ball was dropped on a flawed jet sweep in the end zone with the intended ball carrier, Jake Funk, falling on the loose football before the Longhorns’ defense could get to it but still allowing Texas to within 24-16.
A 22-yard touchdown pass from Ehlinger to Collin Johnson allowed Texas to cut the Terrapins’ lead to 24-22 at halftime, serving notice that the Longhorns had finally found their stride and swagger.
Texas made an easier-than-it-looked stop of Hill on a fourth-down quarterback sneak midway through the third quarter, allowing the Longhorns to take over at the UM 36-yard line.
On third down Ehlinger found Johnson again, this time on a 33-yard strike, and Kyle Porter rumbled into the end zone from 2 yards out on the following snap to grant the Longhorns their first lead of the season, at 29-24, with 4:14 to play in the third.
“The second and third quarters we played the way we are supposed to play,” Herman said.
Maryland wasted little time moving back in front, marching 75 yards in 11 plays to a Tayon Fleet-Davis 1-yard touchdown run for a 31-29 lead with 14:25 left to play.
The two teams were then removed from the field and the crowd was send out of their seats by a weather delay that lasted. It was first weather delay for Texas since a 3-hour, 6-minute suspension of play on Oct. 26, 2013 at TCU.
The delay might have helped Maryland more than the Longhorns, who never really got on track in the final quarter, making silly penalties and eventually the mistakes that cost Texas the win.
Ehlinger finished 21 of 39 for 263 yards and two touchdowns. Humphrey led Texas with six catches for 82 yards and Watson paced the Longhorns’ ballcarriers with 52 yards on 12 totes.
Maryland outgained the Longhorns 407-405, had 21 first downs to 20 for Texas and didn’t commit a turnover. Texas had 10 penalties for 102 yards and lost the time of possession battle to the Terrapins 32:46-27:14.
“We have to do a better job. I’m not angry at our players — they played really, really hard,” Herman said. “We have to find a way as coaches to make sure we play smarter.”
Texas senior linebacker Gary Johnson, a preseason All-Big 12 honoree, was ejected for targeting on the second snap of the second quarter when he put his shoulder into the facemask of Hill as the Maryland quarterback slid after a run. Johnson will miss the first half of the Longhorns’ home opener versus Tulsa next week as well because of the penalty.
Next up for the Longhorns is their first meeting ever with Tulsa Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, with kickoff at 7 p.m.