- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Looking to bounce back from the pandemic, New York City hosts a bowl game later this month, bringing together old ACC rivals Maryland and Virginia Tech for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

“They make movies and Broadway shows and write songs about New York City this time of year, and the city is alive and is coming back, as is the Pinstripe Bowl,” New York Yankees president Randy Levine told reporters in a press conference this week previewing the game.

The 11th edition of the bowl returns with full capacity to Yankee Stadium on Dec. 29 after being canceled due to the pandemic last year. Both Maryland and Virginia Tech, each with identical 6-6 records, will make their first appearance in the game. 

“Being able to come to New York City during the Christmas time and to be part of an iconic venue in the Yankee Stadium, we’re very, very excited,” Maryland athletic director Damon Evans said.

Described as a matchup between “two old rivals that are becoming new rivals” by Levine, the Terrapins and Hokies will meet for the first time since Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten. The Terrapins hold a 16-15 mark in the 31-game series, winning the final game as conference rivals in overtime, 27-24, on Nov. 16, 2013.

Bowl executive director Mark Holtzman said he’s “been waiting personally a long time” for multiple reasons to host the Hokies and Terrapins. For Maryland, that includes a large alumni base in the New York-New Jersey area — more than 40,000 according to Evans — and close proximity for traveling fans.

“The opportunity came up, and we were thrilled to pick them,” Holtzman said.

“It’s long overdue, because we’ve always wanted to be a participant,” Evans said.

Both schools have had to overcome similar difficulties and changes to make it to New York. Virginia Tech got off to a 3-1 start, including a win over then-No. 10 North Carolina, to open the season and a ranking as high as No. 15. But that gave way to a three-game losing streak and the firing of coach Justin Fuente on Nov. 16. The Hokies beat Virginia for the Commonwealth Cup on Nov. 27 to become bowl eligible for a record 29th straight season.

“Through all the adversity this team has been through — close losses, the coaching change, all those things — they never splintered,” Virginia Tech interim coach J.C. Price said. “They stayed together. Our team unity cannot be any stronger than it is right now.”

For Maryland, a similar hot start (4-0) was doused by losses in six of their next seven games. Four of those losses were to teams in the top 10, and the Terrapins have dealt with multiple season-ending injuries to key players, especially at wide receiver. Maryland won at Rutgers Nov. 27 to qualify for the game.

“By no means is 6-6 the landmark that we want to have,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “But to be able to take this step in year three … getting in this type of cycle allows you to continue to develop your team with the added practices. And the things that we get to do now as we prepare to come up to New York is invaluable.”

While Locksley has been away from College Park for recruiting and ceremonies honoring former Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson’s College Football Hall of Fame induction, his players have picked up with their own preparation since the end of the regular season.

Specifically, Locksley said quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa has been organizing and leading seven-on-seven practices and is excited for his first opportunity to play in the postseason.

“That’s the type of leadership that we’re starting to get that we need to have to get to the point where this is an every year deal for us,” Locksley said. “It has to be player-driven, and Taulia kind of exudes that and has really taken that role for our team.”

Locksley views the Pinstripe Bowl more as the start of Maryland’s 2022 season than the conclusion of the current one, and intends to use the allocated 12 to 14 practices ahead of the game to “move the needle forward” in developing his team.

“To me, that’s reinstalling our systems, that’s focusing a lot more on the fundamentals, as well as having some of the developmental periods where our young players who haven’t played a lot during this past season, getting them necessary work to continue their development,” Locksley said.

While Locksley hopes the Pinstripe Bowl will be a launching point for what he wants Maryland to become, the process at Virginia Tech will happen under new leadership. The Hokies hired former Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who was a Tech graduate assistant from 1995-1997, on Nov. 30 to replace Fuente. Price will remain on Pry’s staff, and said one of his main goals is to maintain continuity during the transition.

“Whether it’s [former Hokies] coach [Frank] Beamer or Justin Fuente or Brent Pry,” Price said, “the concept of what Virginia Tech is … has a certain aspect that needs to remain the same for us to be successful, and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Although the game isn’t at a site replete with warm temperatures and ample sunshine in December, Holtzman said they offer players and staff a signature experience in one of the world’s great cities. That includes visits to the National 9/11 Memorial, One World Observatory, and the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall.

“While we don’t have palm trees,” Holtzman said, “we give these student-athletes memories they can tell their grandchildren about some day. And that, to us, is very important.”

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

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