It’s been a hectic season for Maryland football, to say the least.
Things all seemed to be operating like clockwork in the program’s opening four games of the season. In fact, the hopes of the program transforming into a winning one weren’t too far-fetched after five years of coming up short.
The first game was a sign of promise. Not only did the Terps advance to 1-0 on the season, but they took down a West Virginia team that had the looks of a fairly strong program coming into the year. Then came the 62-0 Howard walkover in College Park, giving the Terps two wins in the first two games that they played.
The initial moment of doubt was on the road for Taulia Tagovailoa’s first true road game as a Maryland quarterback as last season fans were not in stadiums. The junior led a game-winning drive at the end of the slugfest to give Maryland a sigh of relief and a three-point win against Illinois. Just like that, 3-0.
And the winning didn't stop there.
Kent State was the next opponent Maryland was tasked with and it handled it decisively. It was a 37-16 win for the Terps, who at the time, looked very much the part of a revamped and motivated Big Ten team coming out of the woods.
Tagovailoa vaulted himself into the conversation for one of the best signal-callers in the Big Ten with 10 passing touchdowns and one interception in the first four games. Senior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. was also proving himself to be a game-changer as he had three separate games with at least 100-plus receiving yards, along with three touchdowns.
What once was a program that was a bottom-feeder in an elite football conference, Maryland started to turn some heads in the early portion of the season. The Terps started with an unblemished 4-0 record, its best beginning to a campaign since 2016 when it went to a bowl game last. All was going well for a Maryland team, that had just swept its nonconference slate.
But the inevitable losing skid came to be soon enough. Just when it seemed as though Maryland would finally start successfully digging its heels into the dirt against the top teams in the Big Ten, it proved those optimists wrong.
And while the Terps were evidently derailed due to injuries on both sides of the ball, specifically pointing out the major losses of Demus, fellow wideout Jeshaun Jones, their performances in the coming weeks would ultimately disappoint the Maryland faithful.
After the Kent State win, Maryland went on to face five ranked Big Ten teams out of its next seven games. Not only did it lose all five of those contests, but it also dropped one to unranked Minnesota. The only win for the Terps came against a lowly Indiana team after they took them down by three points in College Park in late October. Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan all got the best of Maryland head-to-head.
But that’s not to say that the excessive losses lately have deterred the Terps.
“The vibes have been good, you know, we’re just trying to stay together, and just obviously get that sixth win and just do whatever we got to do, keep working, keep practicing, you know, stay in the film room, just do whatever we have to do just to get that sixth win,” senior defensive back Jakorian Bennett said. “The vibes are good, we’re just staying strong, staying committed.”
The latest defeat to then-No. 8 Michigan sealed the losing streak for Maryland against ranked opponents in 2021. The 59 points conceded to the Wolverines, which was the fifth time in five tries that Maryland surrendered 30-plus points to a ranked opposing team, was the second-highest opponent output the Terps gave up all season.
“It was one of those games that I didn’t feel very good coming out of that we did a great job as coaches or players,” head coach Michael Locksley said about the loss to Michigan. “There haven’t been many of those games this season where I was disappointed in our effort or disappointed in us putting our players in the best possible position to have success but this one was one.”
It’s obvious that Maryland isn't able to hang out around the high and mighty elite teams of the conference. There were hopes that the Terps would start to compete on the scoreboard with close proximity to some of these programs, but that wasn’t the case, either.
Maryland has stumbled out of its 4-0 start to a 5-6 current record. Losing six of the last seven games is not where any team wants to be with the end of the regular season knocking on the door.
Yet, Maryland has one more loop to ride on this rollercoaster of a season. Time is running out as it still desperately tries to accomplish its biggest goal of the year. The Terps will have one more crack at it to keep its postseason aspirations alive and it’ll be a road battle with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to determine which 5-6 program will become bowl eligible.
“We’re still chasing that sixth victory and we’re out of time,” Locksley said. “This is one opportunity... I told our team it’s like being in the wild-card playoff game it’s win or go home. For us as we talked about taking the next step as a program, obviously one of the first next steps is becoming a bowl eligible team to where that becomes our standard and you know, for us to be this late in the season and still have an opportunity to compete for that opportunity, I take my hats off to this team because we faced a lot of adversity this season.”
Maryland will be facing a Rutgers program that will be just as hungry as it looks to capture its first bowl appearance since 2014, two years longer than the Terps’ current bowl game drought. ESPN’s Football Power Index currently has Maryland at a 34.2% chance to win the game, while Rutgers has a 65.8% chance to claim victory in the matchup.
Rutgers has had a very similar season to what Maryland has done. The Scarlet Knights won their first three games before going on a four-game losing streak that stretched into late October. It stands at 5-6 now and Rutgers’ 2-6 conference record, an identical figure to the Terps, is bolstered by wins over Illinois and Indiana.
The one thing Maryland will need to take advantage of is Rutgers’ inability to put points on the board. The Terps haven’t been able to stop anyone lately, but the Scarlet Knights have been struggling mightily on offense. Rutgers has scored at least 20 points in a single game just twice since Sept. 25, including putting up three points or less in two of its last three games.
Still, it’s not a challenge that the Terps will take lightly.
“Rutgers, they have a good secondary, they’re not afraid to play man, come down and press receivers and stuff like that,” Tagovailoa said. “They’re very aggressive and athletic, so we’re gonna have our hands full this week.”
So, it all comes down to Saturday at noon. One matchup to determine if this season for Locksley’s program is a success or not after his team has dropped six of the last seven games. It was going to come down to this point all along, but to be sitting one win away from capturing that sixth win, especially with all that Maryland has gone through during its 2021 campaign, is something that Locksley isn’t taking for granted.
“Obviously when you lose a good amount of your players, your production, on both sides of the ball and we still have a chance on Saturday to win a sixth game to put us in position to go to a bowl game, I think that would be a great accomplishment as well as a great testament for the seniors in this program,” Locksley said.
Time is running out for Maryland and its dreams of heading off to a bowl game in 2021. All it needs to do is flip the script in Piscataway.