An open week in the middle of Maryland’s 12-game regular season football schedule gives the Terrapins an opportunity to define who they want to be in 2021: A team that can play to head coach Mike Locksley’s standard and potentially compete in a bowl game, or one that reverts to the mean this program has experienced for the past decade.
The Terrapins (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) will take their bye this week to heal and reset, with key injuries to wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, linebacker Brandon Jennings and defensive back Jakorian Bennett among the most notable. Wide receiver Dontay Demus was lost for the season with a knee injury in Maryland’s Oct. 1 loss to No. 2 Iowa.
Locksley said the bye “couldn’t have come at a better time” after back-to-back losses to the Hawkeyes and No. 6 Ohio State.
The heart of the Big Ten Conference schedule doesn’t provide any respite for a Terrapins team that needs to get right in multiple areas. The Big Ten boasts five top-10 teams in the Associated Press Top 25 poll — the most in the poll’s 85-year history — and all five appear on Maryland’s schedule.
Maryland will face three straight top-10 teams in No. 7 Penn State, No. 10 Michigan State and No. 8 Michigan. Some rankings will shift, as Michigan will play Michigan State and Penn State before visiting College Park, but the elite level of play so far by all three of those teams doesn’t give the Terrapins much room for error.
Maryland has been here before. Promising 4-2 starts in 2014 and 2016 gave way to tough late-season schedules and bowl game losses. The 2016 season also had a November murderer’s row, with consecutive games against No. 2 Michigan, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 19 Nebraska. Maryland lost all three, scoring 13 points in the process. That season was also the last time the Terrapins played in a bowl game, a 36-30 loss to former ACC foe Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.
Maryland’s two biggest wins this season — the opener over West Virginia and Sept. 17 at Illinois — have lost their luster as the Mountaineers have struggled to find an identity at 2-4, and the Fighting Illini are 1-3 and haven’t beaten a Power Five opponent.
The remaining three matchups provide the best path for Maryland to reach at least six wins and bowl eligibility: At 3-2 Minnesota next week, home to 2-3 Indiana on Halloween weekend, and the season finale at 3-3 Rutgers on Nov. 27.
This isn’t the same old Maryland team, as defensive lineman Sam Okuayinou said after the loss at Ohio State. The team is not the same in the way it sounds, prepares or carries itself in comparison to the woeful years over most of the past decade.
Locksley, now in his third season as head coach, is pleased with his team’s culture and preaches and teaches his players to play to “the standard.” And while the second half of the 2021 season won’t define the current era of Maryland football, it can go a long way to outlining where the program can go while shaking off the doubts of the past.