COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The University of Maryland football team burst onto the field before Saturday’s game against Michigan State and sprinted to the opposite end. Then the players knelt around a large “79” painted on the ground behind one end zone.
It is a ritual they have repeated before each home game this season. In June, Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman who wore No. 79, died two weeks after collapsing during a team workout.
But everything else about the past week was different: the conclusion of two separate investigations, one into McNair’s death and one into the football program’s culture under Coach D.J. Durkin; the reluctant decision on Tuesday by Wallace D. Loh, the university president — under heavy pressure from the Board of Regents — to reinstate Durkin from 80 days of administrative leave; and the near-universal condemnation from students, the news media and state lawmakers of that decision.
On Saturday, Maryland looked like a football team suffering under the weight of the previous week. It looked like a football team whose head coach had been reinstated, led a day of practices, and then been fired, all within 24 hours. It looked like a team whose players were compelled to spend the week ensuring some measure of justice for their dead friend and teammate.
Michigan State scored on its first two drives of the game and went ahead, 10-0, on its way to an easy 24-3 victory. Maryland gained only 8 yards in the first quarter and 100 in the game. Its standout player was punter Wade Lees, who averaged 45 yards on eight punts. But as more evidence of the program’s rough stretch, he had been involved in a scuffle involving teammates after practice during the week that resulted in a call to the police.
Maryland’s last, best chance at a victory on Saturday came with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, down, 17-3. Maryland defensive lineman Byron Cowart intercepted Rocky Lombardi’s pass and was rumbling toward a touchdown, but just before the end zone, the ball was chopped out of his arms for a touchback.
On the next play, Michigan State scored on an 80-yard run.
“We are right there playing one of the top programs in the nation, certainly one of the top programs in our league, and we’re that far away from it being 17-10,” Maryland’s interim head coach, Matt Canada, said after the game.
Canada blamed himself for the loss, repeatedly saying he needed to coach better, and acknowledged it had been a tough week. “This week was a challenging week,” he said. “That is a fact. You guys all know that.”
He would not comment on how Maryland players felt about the week, and none were made available to speak to the news media after the loss.
The mood on campus was muted before the game, though that could have been because of the cold November wind whipping through College Park.
A few hundred students dutifully carried bags of beer cans to the Greek life tailgate, and a smattering of fans lined the entrance to the west gate two hours before kickoff to welcome the Terrapins’ team bus. Besides some vigorous clapping directed at the interim head coach, there was little to suggest anything other than a typical Maryland football game.
The 51,802 capacity Maryland Stadium was two-thirds full — the team’s regular attendance this season — and the small student section seemed to evaporate as the Maryland offense sputtered and the Spartans ran away with the game.
Many students in attendance supported Loh’s decision to fire Durkin, if not the convoluted process that led to it.
“There is basically a general consensus among students that it was a good decision to fire the coach,” said the freshman Arno Babcock, 18. “Everybody loves President Loh.”
Babcock’s friend Benjamin Horton, also an 18-year-old freshman, concurred, and said he hoped that the scrutiny of Maryland’s football program would both ensure the safety of its players going forward and perhaps that of football players at other colleges, too.
“It is a good wake-up call to show across the whole United States the culture behind football practices and coaches and how they treat their players,” Horton said.
Allison Kinzer, a 23-year-old student, said Durkin’s firing forestalled campus protests, and she questioned why he was reinstated in the first place.
“They should’ve never hired him back,” she said. “If they would’ve kept him, it would’ve been a disaster.”
Maryland opened the season with an impressive victory over then-No. 23 Texas, but as has been the norm since it joined the Big Ten five years ago, the team has struggled in conference play. Saturday’s loss dropped Maryland’s conference record to 3-3, with games against ranked Ohio State and Penn State to come.
Maryland last had a winning record in 2013, its final season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Traditionally a basketball school, Maryland was a member of the basketball-mad A.C.C. for 60 years.
Joining the football-heavy Big Ten has been blamed in part for the hard-charging culture that led to McNair’s death and the reluctance of the Board of Regents to recommend that Loh fire Durkin, despite a pedestrian 10-15 record in his first two seasons.
Reminders of the Big Ten are almost as ubiquitous in Maryland Stadium as the logo of Under Armour, the sports apparel manufacturer founded by an alumnus, the football booster Kevin A. Plank. The conference logo is painted on the field — just yards away from two smaller “79” reminders of McNair. And over the west gate, Big Ten flags fly just below those of the state of Maryland.