Maryland’s final game Saturday afternoon at Rutgers comes with a prize that’s eluded the Terrapins for three straight weeks: A chance to play in a bowl game.
“We’re still chasing that sixth victory,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley told reporters, “and we’re out of time.”
Maryland’s three previous chances to get that elusive win all came against ranked opponents — Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan — the toughest part of the Terrapins’ schedule.
The Scarlet Knights (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) may seem like a respite after that stretch, but in many ways, the game will be like looking in a mirror for the Terrapins (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten). Both schools have identical records, have the same conference wins (Illinois and Indiana), and are playing for the Big Ten’s final guaranteed bowl berth.
“It makes it a game that we both are very desperate to win,” Locksley said.
“I told our team it’s like being in the [MLB] wild-card playoff game. It’s win or go home.”
In addition to the bowl implications, Taulia Tagovailoa has a chance at Rutgers to complete the best statistical season by a quarterback in Maryland history.
The junior already holds the season completion mark, currently at 287, broken last week in the 59-18 loss to the Wolverines. Tagovailoa also sits only 216 yards and five touchdowns behind Scott Milanovich’s program records set in 1993.
“This season has been a lot of ups and downs. I’m just blessed and grateful that I still get to play,” Tagovailoa said. “I think the biggest goal right now is ending it with a bowl game.”
Limiting mistakes will go a long way to helping Maryland reach the postseason for the first time in five seasons. The Terrapins have been penalized 78 times this season, with 21 of those coming in their last two games.
“Every day we’ve got to continue to work on being disciplined, myself included,” Tagovailoa said. “I think that was the biggest thing these past couple of games when it came down to it.”
Eight Big Ten teams are currently bowl eligible. Three of them — No. 2 Ohio State, No. 6 Michigan, and No. 12 Michigan State — are in contention for the College Football Playoff or to play in one of the premier New Year’s Six bowl games.
By winning Saturday, Maryland would become the conference’s ninth bowl eligible team and could land in one of three destinations:
— The New Era Pinstripe Bowl, at Yankee Stadium in New York City on Dec. 29 to play an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. One of a small handful of bowls played outdoors in a cold-weather city, the Pinstripe Bowl would offer the Terrapins and their fans the shortest commute to a postseason game. Maryland has not played in this game before, but it could be enticing for bowl officials with the ACC tie-in to pick Maryland against former rivals Virginia or Virginia Tech depending on how the Commonwealth Cup game between the schools plays out.
— The Guaranteed Rate Bowl, at Chase Field in Phoenix on Dec. 28 to face a Big 12 opponent. A much friendlier destination weather-wise for Maryland, the Guaranteed Rate Bowl is also the second on this list that’s both hosted at a baseball stadium and would be a first for the Terrapins. This bowl features another enticing matchup tie-in, but with a catch: West Virginia needs a win at Kansas to become bowl eligible for the Big 12. Maryland defeated the Mountaineers Sept. 4 in the season opener, 30-24.
— The Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit on Dec. 27 against a Mid-American opponent. Maryland’s third likely option is the only familiar one on this list. The 2016 Quick Lane Bowl was the last time the Terrapins competed in the postseason, a 36-30 loss to Boston College. The MAC’s bowl bids are typically given out based on proximity and matchups — Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, and Toledo could all be potential opponents.
All of the above are still contingent on multiple factors, the most important being the task at hand for Maryland, and especially the program’s seniors, this weekend in New Jersey.
“I think that would be a great accomplishment, as well as a great testament, for the seniors in this program,” Locksley said, “that they’re leaving this program better than when they came. Because not one of these guys have ever participated in a bowl game.”