Compounding the degree of difficulty in Maryland’s bid to get a season that opened with such promise back on track is a November slate that is tied for the second-most rigorous in the Football Bowl Subdivision based on its remaining opponents’ current records. The gantlet commences Saturday afternoon when the Terrapins draw visiting Penn State, which was slotted 11th in the first College Football Playoff rankings.
Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Maryland is 2-7 in the series, and it has just three wins in 46 all-time meetings. The Terrapins (5-3, 2-3) have dropped their past three games at home to Penn State (7-1, 4-1) by an average margin of more than 46 points and lost, 30-0, last year on the road.
“It’s very disappointing to be in the situation that we are in, especially with the high expectations we had coming into this season,” Maryland running back Roman Hemby said. “I feel like we have a great group of guys and a great team, and I feel like we are one of those teams that we kind of say we’re good enough to beat anybody, and we can be bad enough to lose to anybody any day. We want to build that consistency around here.”
The most recent disheartening result that pushed the Terrapins’ skid to three in a row unfolded this past Saturday against Northwestern. The Wildcats entered with one win in the conference under an interim coach, David Braun, who has been leading the team following the dismissal of Pat Fitzgerald amid a hazing scandal.
Coming off an open week in which it welcomed back a slew of ailing starters, Maryland departed Northwestern’s Ryan Field on the short end of a 33-27 final score after quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa’s pass in the closing minutes was intercepted. Tight end Corey Dyches, the intended target, slipped on the play, allowing the ball to sail over his head and into a defender’s arms.
Tagovailoa committed two turnovers, the first of which was a fumble the Wildcats recovered at the Maryland 12-yard line after the redshirt senior had the ball slip out of his grasp during his throwing motion. The Terrapins lost a fumble for just the second time all season, but the miscue led to the first points for Northwestern.
The sequence left Locksley almost at a loss for words in his postgame news conference, and he vowed to undertake a thorough examination of the entire program, beginning with himself and the coaching staff through each player and anyone associated with the team who made the trip to Evanston, Ill.
“It’s a little different program now because Maryland is now a team that gets hunted,” Locksley said. “Before, we show up, and you’d say, ‘Oh, it’s Maryland,’ and maybe [players] approached the game with the mentality of, ‘It’s just Maryland,’ but right now I don’t think very many people when we show up say, ‘It’s just Maryland,’ and so what our team has to do to take the next step to become a championship type of program is we’ve got to be able to learn how to play when you are the favorite, when you are expected to win.”
The Terrapins were a prohibitive favorite against Illinois for homecoming the weekend before their open date but lost, 27-24, on a 43-yard field goal as time expired. Shorthanded on defense because of injury, Maryland permitted the Fighting Illini plays covering 29, 12 and nine yards to move into range for a field goal attempt.
The returns of safety Dante Trader Jr. and cornerback Tarheeb Still at Northwestern did little to boost a defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in both yards allowed (340.5 per game) and scoring (20.4 points per game). Still and Trader, among others, had a hand in the Terrapins missing 16 tackles and blowing coverages that allowed Northwestern chunk yardage.
In addition to addressing errors that have threatened to derail the path to a third consecutive bowl appearance, Maryland has been processing the departure of wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, a transfer from Florida International. Chambers left the team early this week for personal reasons, Locksley confirmed, but will remain enrolled in classes.
Chambers had been hailed as a potentially significant contributor upon his arrival in College Park but caught seven passes in six games while managing ailments. A report in the Baltimore Banner cited turf toe and a hyperextended knee as contributing factors in his decision to pause football activity.
In the week leading up to the game against Northwestern, the Terrapins also faced questions regarding associate head coach and co-offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin’s arrest on a DUI charge in the early morning hours of Oct. 21, according to a report filed by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Sumlin was not with the team this past weekend, and Locksley has declined to elaborate about the potential for additional disciplinary action.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of distractions,” Maryland safety Beau Brade said. “Right now, we’re just trying to focus on the upcoming week, Penn State. That’s all we can do, can’t control anything else, so we’re focused on Penn State, trying to get that first [win] in the last four weeks and trying to start some good ball for the last [part] of the season.”