In college football, teams get remembered for what they do in November. Maryland head coach Mike Locksley knows that.
As his bowl-eligible Terps look to continue their best start in more than a decade, the schedule begins to heat up. Fresh off its bye week, Maryland will head to Wisconsin for arguably its most important game since joining the Big Ten. After that, the Terps will have two straight games where they will be heavy underdogs — at Penn State and against Ohio State, respectively — before closing out the season at home against a pesky Rutgers team.
Maryland’s accomplishments thus far should not be taken with a grain of salt. The Terps are 6-2 for the first time since 2010. They have clinched bowl eligibility at the program’s earliest date since 2001. The Terps’ only two losses have come by a combined nine points. Still, Maryland feels it can accomplish a lot more this season. Of course, whatever Maryland achieves throughout the next month and in its bowl game will not be the end goal. The blueprint for the program’s “next step” is dynamic, just like the landscape of collegiate sports.
“For us to take the next step, the next step is being consistent,” Locksley said. “We’ve been able to do that with becoming a consistent bowl-eligible team two years in a row. But it’s not, that’s not the end-all-be-all, that’s not our destination. Our destination is to build a championship program around here, and the only way to do that is with consistency.”
The Terps have struggled in November in years past. Take out the wonky 2020 season where it had two November games canceled and played regular-season games into December, and Maryland is 5-23 in November since joining the Big Ten; three of those wins are against Rutgers.
Against three of the brand names in the conference, changing the tide will be easier said than done. But this could be the most talented Maryland team since the program has been in the Big Ten, and it will have to mute the past to reach new heights.
“We don’t talk a lot about the past, at least from a negative standpoint,” Locksley said. “Obviously, I’ve been around here where we’ve had a few really good Novembers. But for us, it’s all about being where our feet are, being here. Our players have embraced that philosophy of ‘let’s just worry about right now.’ There’s nothing that the past can teach us or the future can bring us, it’s all about what we do right now in the present.
Maryland will embark on this “four-week sprint” in just a matter of hours. Internally, the program has the right players leading it through the gauntlet.
The bye week came at the perfect time for redshirt junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who will be back under center after recovering from a sprained MCL. Tagovailoa is nearing the end of his third year as the Maryland starter, and it remains to be seen whether this will be his final collegiate season or not.
Regardless, as Tagovailoa climbs up the program’s record books, his returned presence will be massive. If Tagovailoa can put together clean games with ultra-smart decision-making, Maryland will have a chance to do big things this month.
“Yes sir, it’s big. I mean every step, every next step we take, it’s a better opportunity for us at the end of the season. And I mean, these next four games is big time. It’s Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State and Rutgers,” Tagovailoa said. “… Like coach says, everyone remembers November. So I mean, it’s important, but I think the biggest thing is just focusing one day at a time, one week at a time, and we got a big challenge ahead of us right now.”
“We can do great things that’s never been done before,” redshirt sophomore tight end Corey Dyches added. “… I’m looking forward to it, we’re all looking forward to it.”
Equally as important as Maryland’s star-studded offense has been the clutch play on the defensive side of the ball. The Terps have done a fantastic job creating turnovers, as their nine interceptions have already surpassed their mark of six from last season.
With the bye week, Maryland had a lot of time to assess the first eight games of the season. Junior safety Beau Brade, who has been arguably Maryland’s best defensive player this season, emphasized the need to continue shutting down big plays and generating turnovers. He also believes that the number of penalties the team compiles will decrease, noting how the issue has reverted “back to normal” since a great disciplinary showing at Michigan.
If everything clicks this Saturday at Wisconsin, the Terps will have more than a puncher’s chance to improve to 7-2. If Maryland can take care of business, even as five-point underdogs, the narrative will change. It won’t be Maryland football being a perennial Big Ten stepover, but it will be a program projected to finish with its best regular-season record in 12 years, led by a coach who has completely rejuvenated a once-bleak culture into a vibrant one.
“This is the time of the year where the natural tendency is we’re almost done, and instead of just coasting through the finish line, we want to finish strong,” Locksley said. “And again, it’s still one game at a time and a great opportunity against Wisconsin is what we have before us.”
The next step in November awaits. Maryland just has to capitalize on it.