CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Maryland football finished its 2022 season on a high note Friday, defeating NC State, 16-12, to win the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The Terps close head coach Mike Locksley’s fourth season at 8-5, a one-game improvement from 2022 and the program’s first eight-win season since joining the Big Ten.
“I’m immensely proud of this team, man,” Locksley said. “They have been through so much and you talk about these seniors that have left us, and even some of the guys that have entered the transfer portal — that’s the landscape of college football — but I’m really thankful for those guys.”
Though the game was played at a somewhat choppy pace, it never felt out of Maryland’s grasp in the final minutes. The Terps’ defense was once again the difference, and they controlled the time of possession battle by more than 11 minutes.
Let’s catch up on some takeaways from the all-important Maryland win.
Four of Maryland’s top pass catchers were absent, but the rest of its core stepped up.
Par for the course in college football today, Maryland’s highly praised wide receiver room was gutted in the weeks leading up to the bowl game.
Fifth-year Dontay Demus Jr. opted out of the game to maintain his health for the 2023 NFL Draft on Dec. 1. Florida transfer wideout Jacob Copeland did so a day earlier, and star junior Rakim Jarrett forwent his remaining eligibility by declaring on Dec. 13. Reliable tight end CJ Dippre also transferred to Alabama.
So, the Terps were left in a situation similar to the one their running backs faced in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl. Veteran Jeshaun Jones would lead the core, sophomore Tai Felton would see more snaps and the rest of the group would feature freshmen out to prove themselves.
That’s exactly what happened.
Jones led all receivers with 79 yards Friday, riding the momentum from his career performance against Rutgers in Maryland’s last regular-season game more than one month ago. A constant security blanket for redshirt junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa all season, Jones would continue that theme Friday.
Sophomore Tai Felton, who has shown flashes of being Maryland’s future No. 1 receiver this season, stepped up in increased playing time as well, finishing with four receptions for 69 yards.
Perhaps the most exciting revelation, though, was the play of true freshman Octavian Smith Jr. Smith played in all 12 games during the regular season, recording nine receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown while also returning 14 kicks. Smith finished Friday’s game with three receptions, 34 receiving yards, an impact in the kick return game and this impressive touchdown.
“I thought they were just OK,” Locksley said of the young receivers. “We did not block the perimeter worth a you know what. We had space plays, and we had guys missing blocks out on the perimeter. But those are the growing pains that when they’re, they’re lessons. You lose or you don’t execute the way you should, those are the valuable lessons that during the offseason, we’ll go back, watch the tape, we’ll get them coached up.”
The receivers may not have been the difference in Friday’s win, but their performance certainly proved the room, even before Maryland’s transfer imports arrive, is in good hands.
“They’re going to be better next year because of the amount of snaps they were able to take this year and being thrust into meaningful roles today, and that’s what it’s all about as you develop a team,” Locksley added.
Maryland’s second-half defense was once again a theme in a victory.
All year long, Maryland’s second half defense had come out strong. In 75% of their regular season games, the Terps allowed 10 points or fewer. Oftentimes, it seemed like a switch flipped in the halftime locker room. While there wasn’t too staunch of a difference between Maryland’s defense in the first and second half, it came up clutch once again.
The Terps forced punts on each of NC State’s first four drives to begin the second half, including two three-and-outs.
NC State seemingly generated some juice with an interception of Tagovailoa with 11:13 to play, starting its fifth drive of the half at the Maryland 35-yard line. Still, the Terps bent but did not break, conceding a first down but still holding NC State to three points.
And when it mattered most, senior cornerback Jakorian Bennett sealed the deal. On the first play of what-would-be NC State’s final drive, Bennett made an acrobatic interception, taking the ball away from former Terp Darryl Jones.
Bennett talked frequently about turning his pass breakups — a stat where he was among the nation’s leaders last season— into interceptions, so it was only fitting for his Maryland career to end that way. With the second-half defense once again coming up clutch, it was fitting to end the season that way too.
Maryland football has not quite reached the “next step,” but Friday’s win serves as another sign of progress.
Not only did Friday’s win complete Maryland’s first eight-win season since joining the Big Ten, it was its first since 2010.
Though Locksley had continuously mentioned that the bowl game would serve as the start of the 2023 season due to the lack of continuity with rosters, the victory should not be downplayed.
“Just the belief. I feel like we’ve always had the talent since I’ve been here,” Jones said of the program’s growth. “It’s just believing that we can do what we’ve done these last two years.”
Locksley took over a program in disarray and — sans the COVID-19-truncated 2020 season — has improved his team’s win total each year. Given the program’s lack of success since joining the Big Ten, what he has been able to accomplish is no small feat.
“The brotherhood, that’s kind of easy,” said Bennett, reflecting on the biggest difference between when he arrived and now. “The bond that you have with the guy to your left, the guy to your right, it’s unbreakable. It’s just knowing that he’s going to give it his all and he’s going to give it his all and you’re going to give your all ... Nothing can really stop this group.”
The fact, whether it be downplayed internally or not, is that Maryland has now won bowl games in back-to-back seasons since 2002-03. The program is on an upward trajectory, which undoubtedly helps its perception among recruits and the public.
So much is made about the “next step” that Locksley consistently refers to, and now the answer is starting to take shape. The expectation around Maryland is that it should be bowl-eligible every year. Now, the program must compete with the conference’s best.
The Terps accomplished small moral victories by bringing both Michigan and Ohio State to the wire, but blowout losses to Wisconsin and Penn State and a home loss to Purdue should be deemed unacceptable.
In his early national signing day media availability, Locksley mentioned for the first time that the immediate future is “the time” to compete for championships. Whether that is possible or not may be doubtful and remains to be seen, but this much is clear: the expectations for Maryland have been raised, and the definition of the “next step” seems concrete.
“The last four years we’ve talked about taking the next step, taking the next step,” Locksley said. “Well, the next step for us is to start competing for Big Ten championships. And there’s some people out there that’ll laugh at us and they think it’s funny. But you take a Terp for granted, I promise you we’ll make you pay.”