COLLEGE PARK – Michael Locksley knows the signs of a team on the verge of an implosion — he’s seen them during his tenure as Maryland’s head coach. Wide-eyed players stare at a scoreboard displaying a deficit that grows throughout the game.
When the Terps went down by two touchdowns four minutes into Saturday’s Week 2 matchup with Charlotte, a game that should’ve been another tuneup in an easy early-season slate, Locksley looked up and down his sideline for those troubling indicators.
He saw none. Instead, he saw leaders — quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, receiver Jeshaun Jones, offensive tackle DJ Glaze — keeping the Terps on a path to victory. Maryland scored 38 unanswered points in a 38-20 home win that remained merely disappointing rather than disastrous.
“Didn’t meet the standard today,” Locksley said to open his news conference. “Our standard is to start fast and finish strong, and we didn’t do either one of those two things and we’re still able to come away with a pretty good win.
“So, for us, nobody in the locker room is excited about how we played. But we overcame some adversity, early adversity, which kind of showed me that we’re the type of team that I thought we could be. We battled back after a slow start. Didn’t see anybody panic.”
Charlotte pounded the Terps with four straight runs for 27 yards before quarterback Jalon Jones lofted a bomb to a wide-open Jairus Mack for a 48-yard touchdown.
Octavian Smith dropped the ensuing kickoff, but Maryland swerved away from disaster when Roman Hemby dove on the ball. Tagovailoa yanked the wheel and flung the Terps back into catastrophic circumstances a play later, throwing his first pass right to 49ers linebacker Demetrius Knight II, who returned it for a touchdown and a 14-0 Charlotte lead.
“The [defensive end] was walked outside of the flat guy. It was a poor decision on our quarterback’s part to throw it there,” Locksley said. “The ball should have went inside. Like I said, they didn’t do anything that we didn’t expect. I just thought that they came out and played a little harder.”
Maryland’s defense stabilized from there, not allowing another Charlotte score until there was under a minute and a half remaining in the game. It forced six straight punts and then an interception and a fumble on consecutive drives in that stretch.
The Terps’ offense continued with as uneven a performance as you can have when totaling 530 yards. It constantly overcame disadvantageous situations of its own making.
Maryland punted twice before stringing together three drives that each ended in Jack Howes field goals. The last came as time expired in the first half, after Kaden Prather secured a 20-yard catch a play after his would-be 32-yard touchdown catch was wiped away due to an offensive pass interference penalty.
The Terps received the ball to start the second half — Smith bobbled the kickoff return again but secured it in the end zone for a touchback — and searched for their first lead.
To that point, Hemby had gained just 10 yards on four carries in a first half during which, he said, he was “a little antsy.”
He’d quintuple that figure on the first play, bursting through the line for 40 yards. An ineligible man downfield penalty gave Maryland a first-and-15 and stymied some of its offensive rhythm — Hemby promptly got 14 of those yards back to set up a thrd-and-1.
Backup quarterback Billy Edwards, who’s five inches taller and 11 pounds heavier than Tagovailoa, came in for an attempted sneak. But, continuing the unsteady nature of the Terps’ offensive performance, he dropped the snap.
Hemby bailed him out, scooping the ball and scampering for a first down. Tagovailoa sandwiched two 14-yard completions to Jones between a 5-yard loss on a scramble, setting up another third-and-1.
Hemby was stuffed this time, bringing Edwards back out. This time he’d hold on to the ball and enter the end zone for a touchdown and a hard-fought lead. Tagovailoa found Jones for a two-point conversion to give Maryland a three-point lead.
Hemby, Tagovailoa and Jones — Maryland’s trio of returning offensive stars — guided the offense through the rickety path it shoved itself into, eventually getting the Terps a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Hemby led the way, finishing with a career-high 217 yards from scrimmage — 162 rushing and 55 receiving.
“I feel like we were able to wear the defense out a little bit towards the end of the game,” he said. “... I feel like I was able to settle in and we were able to regroup at halftime and I was able to make the plays that were there when I needed to make them the most.”
Charlotte punted and Maryland surged back down the field, gaining 52 yards in eight plays as it looked to continue its positive play. But it couldn’t be that easy on a night as discombobulated as Saturday — Tagovailoa threw his second pick on an overzealous attempt to the end zone.
The 49ers faced a third-and-8 on their next possession when Jaishawn Barham, lined up as an edge rusher, screamed off the right side for his first sack of the year.
The Terps blew the game open from there, scoring three straight touchdowns — including a 40-yard bomb to Prather and a 15-yard dash from Hemby.
The explosion erased most memories of a start that displayed the trademarks of an oncoming collapse. But Maryland staved all that off, making the dismal opening a mere footnote in a comfortable Week 2 win.
That, by itself, marks progress for a program trying to take meaningful steps forward.