As the seconds ticked down and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa took a knee in Piscataway, New Jersey on Nov. 27, the Maryland football team erupted into cheers and came together in the end zone for a group photo. The Terps had just put together a strong performance to take down Rutgers marking the first time the team would qualify for a bowl game since 2016.
Following the celebrations, head coach Michael Locksley addressed the media and within the first few minutes of his press conference, he said in addition to sending the seniors out the right way as he had emphasized earlier in the season, he was excited for the bowl game opportunity to get the extra practices to further develop the team.
“We want this to become the standard and teams that go to bowls have more opportunities to develop their team and that’s what these next practices and these next few weeks will be all about. Developing some really talented young players that I think you had a chance to see out there today,” Locksley said.
Leading up to the bowl game, senior offensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu shared a similar sentiment as to where the emotions are surrounding this experience.
“[A bowl game] gives the seniors, you know, the extra game to just showcase the talent and what they can do on the field. Yeah just, gives the younger guys an extra couple of days preparing for the next season,” Okuayinonu said.
“You know it’s a great experience, man, we have a chance to have one this season. We haven’t done that a long time. So it’s definitely exciting times around here. So we will go out there to New York and handle business.”
When it comes to honoring its seniors, Maryland football has been determined to do so in the right way. There is not a player on this roster who has been to a bowl game and the entire locker room is experiencing it for the first time, together.
This senior class is one that has endured both celebrations and hardships including collecting wins over then-top 25 opponents, mourning the loss of their friend and teammate in Jordan McNair and qualifying for the program’s first bowl game since 2016. The seniors have done this all while working to rebuild the program Locksley, who started this job in 2018.
“It’s a blessing. Mainly for our seniors who have been here for a long time. To have the opportunity to win a bowl game, for this team to give them the opportunity,” Tagovailoa said.
Maryland has 25 seniors currently on the roster. One of those seniors is tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo who announced in December that he would declare for the 2022 NFL Draft. However, in the statement he put out, he mentioned that he would play in the Pinstripe Bowl, his last game as a Terp.
Virginia Tech has had multiple players announce that they will opt out of the game. The Hokies will be without redshirt junior quarterback Braxton Burmeister and backup quarterback Knox Kadum resulting in Virginia Tech diving deeper into its roster for a quarterback.
“I said earlier when the bowl process started that I don’t agree with [players opting out],” Virginia Tech interim head coach J.C. Price said. “Some of my fondest memories as a player was playing in the Independence Bowl, in the Sugar Bowl... I understand and I respect their decision. But I don’t agree with it.”
The Terps have experienced some players enter the transfer portal such as linebackers Branden Jennings and Terrence Lewis as well as running back Peny Boone, meaning they will not play in the bowl game. However, Maryland has not had any players, not in the transfer portal, opt out of this game.
“For me, it was a no-brainer. I was definitely gonna play in the game no matter what,” Okonkwo said. “...it’s very special to get to have it together, our senior class with everything we’ve been through.”
Part of that may have to do with the culture that has been discussed time and time again this season when it comes to Maryland football. Locksley and the players partly attributed some of Maryland’s early-season success to the fact that the players on the roster have bought into the coaching staff’s mentality. That there was just an overwhelming sense that this roster understands what it means to be a team player and what it takes to rebuild a program.
“I feel like we’ve seen the buy-in happen all season. You know, due to injuries and just different situations like a lot of young guys kind of step up and play,” sophomore linebacker Ruben Hyppolite said.
“And I think our coaches did a great job of getting them ready to go during camp during the spring. So that’s the expectation of coming here. You know, you got to be ready when your number’s called. So I feel like you know, we did a good job of doing that this year.”
That is why, for the Terps, this game is not only about sending the seniors out in a way the team feels they deserve but also continuing to develop the future of the program. Locksley has shared that he views these practices as the start of the 2022 season rather than the end of the 2021 season.
“I’m really excited and happy that we were able to do that for the 25 upperclassmen but even more excited for me selfishly that we get, you know, 14, 15 more practices where the rich get richer,” Locksley said. “You know, teams that typically go to bowls have a better chance to next year to go because of how they’re able to develop with these extra practices.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there were just 25 bowl games during the 2020-21 NCAA football season. However, when comparing the two most recent consecutive seasons not affected by the pandemic, it’s apparent that Locksley’s mentality that the rich get richer when it comes to bowl games stands true.
Out of the 80 teams to compete in a bowl game in 2019, just 21 teams (26.25%) were not in a bowl during the 2018 season. Four of those teams hit the six-win mark but did not receive a berth or in Liberty’s case, did not request a waiver as it transitioned from FCS to FBS because there were enough bowl-eligible teams in the field already.
Zooming in further, when it comes to teams playing in the Pinstripe Bowl, just six of the 20 teams who play in the Bronx for a bowl game did not play in one the following year. One of those teams is Michigan State who played in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2019 but elected not to accept an invitation during the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. This season, in the Spartans’ first bowl game since 2019, they are playing in the Peach Bowl.
Since starting practices, Locksley has seen improvement from the younger players on his roster who may have not had the opportunity earlier this season to really grow and develop. Although he mentioned he’s been happy with the running back group and the defensive interior players, for example, Locksley explained he doesn’t like leaving any of the young players out when discussing growth as he’s been impressed with the group as a whole.
“I’ve been really pleased with the development of these young guys,” Locksley said. “Like I said, whether it’s special teams roles or roles within the offense or defensive system, we feel very confident that we’ll have some of these guys be able to contribute.”
For some of the younger players who have been starting, these practices are the opportunity to help bring them to the next level.
Sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett was one of Maryland’s highest-ranked recruits in program history. He finished the regular season leading the Terps in receiving with a team-high 56 catches for 769 yards and five touchdowns over 12 games.
He believes that everyone’s next step is to play at the next level and this bowl game practice schedule allows everyone to readjust and learn how to play for a longer period, deeper into the winter.
“The season ends in late November if you don’t make it to a bowl game. I feel all of our next steps is to make it and that season ends in January,” Jarrett said. “So I think just changing your body to withstand those long months in the season especially when it gets colder outside. Just trying to mentally prepare for it all.”
The schedule of having a stretch of practices without a game also allows Locksley, the rest of his coaching staff and the players, to develop specific areas rather than focusing on preparing for a specific opponent for more time than the regular season allots.
“[We just get] to slow down, get back to the basics and just fine-tune your work,” sophomore cornerback Tarheeb Still said. “And ultimately that puts a better product on the field.”
Hyppolite shared a similar sentiment: that the bowl game practices allow the team to be meticulous and detail-oriented while honing in on specific skills and the basics.
Maryland football has had the opportunity to develop its players with these practices and will continue to up until the game. Now, on Dec. 29, they will have the opportunity to pull the pieces together and send its seniors out on a high note, with a winning record for the first time since 2014.