The bridge that lies ahead this weekend for the Maryland football team is as familiar as it is rickety. This is a movie that would fit into one of those two-day TBS marathons, a repeat over and over and over again. The Terrapins are 3-0. They travel to play No. 4 Michigan on Saturday. A victory could change the course of the program.
For Terps football, beating Michigan might require forkfuls of belief
Yet rewind the movies again, just those since the Terps joined the Big Ten.
In 2014, they were 4-1 and won their conference opener — then played Ohio State and lost 52-24.
In 2016, they were 4-0 and won their conference opener — then went to Penn State and lost 38-14.
In 2017, they started 3-1 and won their conference opener — then went to Ohio State and lost 62-14.
In 2018, they started 3-1 and won their conference opener — then went to Michigan and lost 42-21.
Last year, they started 4-0 — then hosted Iowa in their conference opener and lost 51-14.
Given all that, Michael Locksley would seem to have quite a sales job to get his players to even begin to believe the Terrapins could beat the Wolverines.
“The guys believe,” Locksley said in an interview this week, surely and emphatically. “I don’t think there’s anybody, when we step on the field, that doesn’t.”
That’s a step, then. To cross the bridge, to change the channel, the Terps who are on the field must discard all evidence of what’s happened in these situations before, even if the Terps fans in the stands or on the couch might need some convincing.
Which doesn’t mean Locksley’s beyond molding the Terps’ minds to solidify that belief. To be clear about what’s ahead: Michigan is the defending Big Ten champion, a program that reached the College Football Playoff last season and has designs on repeating those accomplishments this campaign. The Wolverines (3-0) rank third in the nation in yards allowed per game (194.0) and yards allowed per play (3.22), and they just unleashed a quarterback — sophomore J.J. McCarthy — who might be the best Coach Jim Harbaugh has had in college since he coached Andrew Luck at Stanford.
Maryland’s lone win at the Big House came in 2014 and was so devastating in Ann Arbor that it was a factor in getting then-Wolverines coach Brady Hoke fired. It was long enough ago that Locksley, then the Terps’ offensive coordinator, said he doesn’t remember much about the game.
What he might remember: Since that upset, the Terps have played Michigan six times and lost six times, with the average score of roughly 43-10.
So, then, belief?
“I asked them about Grandma’s macaroni and cheese,” Locksley said.
Locksley said he asked his players whether Grandma’s macaroni and cheese is better on Christmas than it is on a normal Sunday dinner. The emphatic response: No.
“It’s slammin’,” Locksley said, parroting his players. “It’s great. It’s unbelievable.”
“Who we play doesn’t change” what the Terps do, the coach said. “It’s the consistency of how we prepare to play. Which is what makes Grandma’s macaroni and cheese good on Christmas Day or a regular Sunday after church.
“I’m trying to get us out of this mentality of riding this wave of emotions where we prepare differently for Charlotte than we do Ohio State, prepare differently for Michigan than we do SMU. Because that’s not the case as a football coach. We don’t go in and say, ‘It’s Michigan week. Let’s all of a sudden ramp up our intensity,’ because that’s not how you go about building a winning program.”
The obstacles to building a winning program for Maryland in the Big Ten have been hashed and rehashed in this space. The one right in front of them, Michigan, is what matters at the moment.
“It’s like they’re just another team,” said junior receiver Rakim Jarrett, who caught a 48-yard touchdown pass in the Terps’ penalty-filled, come-from-behind victory over SMU on Saturday.
That might seem like forced belief. For Jarrett and an increasing number of Terrapins, it’s not. He is a Prince George’s County native who played at powerhouse St. John’s in the District and received scholarship offers from, among others, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and — you guessed it — Michigan. He is exactly the kind of player Locksley pledged to keep home.
“I don’t want to sound like something I’m not,” Jarrett said, choosing his words carefully. “But since I’ve been recruited by all these teams, it’s like they don’t really excite me as much as they would excite somebody that didn’t have the chance to go to Michigan.”
That’s Grandma’s mac and cheese baked-in, right there. Yeah, it’s corny (cornbread?), but it makes sense. According to the recruiting site 247 Sports, Maryland’s past three recruiting classes have composite rankings of 31st, 18th and 31st nationally. Yeah, Michigan’s were 10th, 13th and ninth in that time. Michigan certainly has more experienced talent and more depth, so there’s a disparity. It just shouldn’t be a 43-10 disparity.
“Get it to the fourth quarter, and now it’s who executes the best,” Locksley said. “Sometimes it neutralizes the difference in skill level or depth level because they’ve got pressure on them, like we have pressure on us. Who’s going to handle it the best? That’s why we try to prepare for pressure.”
By the fourth quarter of blowouts, the pressure is long gone. Which gets us to this point: Through three games — wins over Buffalo, at Charlotte and the comeback against SMU — this looks like the best of Locksley’s four teams as the Terps’ head coach. Fair assessment?
“No doubt about it,” Locksley said. “There’s no doubt it’s the best culture and the best players I’ve had since I’ve been here — across the board.”
Whether that’s enough to cross the bridge or change the channel or [insert overwrought metaphor here] will show up at noon Saturday. The talented Terps have pledged to prepare with the consistency of Grandma’s mac and cheese. At some point — be it Saturday or some date we can’t yet see from here — that will have to help change the results.