There was a moment nearly a month ago when it seemed as if the Maryland football team had turned the proverbial — and very protracted — corner under fourth-year coach Mike Locksley.
It came after the Terps rallied and then held on to beat Northwestern on Homecoming in College Park, putting Maryland at 6-2 and making Locksley’s team bowl eligible for the second year in a row.
More importantly, it was the earliest the Terps had been bowl eligible since 2001. Back then, many of the current Maryland players had yet to be born, while Lockley was a young assistant beginning a long association with the university as a member of Ralph Friedgen’s staff.
“It’s significant for our fan base,” Locksley said after the Northwestern game. “It’s significant for our psyche. ... It’s one of the first goals that we create year-in and year-out. Hopefully that’s the foundation of what we do, is every year to be a bowl-eligible team.”
But for Locksley to truly convince fans that the program is getting to where he wants it to be, he needed more. That’s why what happened Saturday — a loss — somehow feels more significant than anything else this year.
After two games to which the Terps barely showed up — losing badly in consecutive rainy road games to Wisconsin (27-10) and Penn State (30-0) — Maryland went from being nearly four-touchdown underdogs to the brink of what could have been one of the biggest wins in school history.
The final score — No. 2 Ohio State 43, Maryland 30 — was misleading, to say the least. After seeing a 13-10 halftime lead dissolve into a 27-13 deficit after a blocked punt and other self-destructing mistakes in the third quarter, the Terps rallied behind the right arm and renewed confidence of recently maligned quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa to take the Buckeyes into the final minute.
“We have heart,” said Tagovailoa, who passed Scott Milanovich to become Maryland’s all-time passing yardage leader with 7,316. “As a team, we were unhappy with our performance the past two weeks, whether it was the weather or anything like that. We felt like we didn’t give it our all (in the losses). We didn’t fight. (Against Ohio State) we showed heart.”
Only a strip sack of Tagovailoa by defensive end Zach Harrison that saw the ball pop into the hands of Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers in the end zone in the closing seconds (a play that left Tagovailoa with what he and Locksley described as a bruised knee) prevented those who had not witnessed this near-upset in person to truly understand how close the game was.
It was not as reminiscent of Ohio State’s last visit in 2018 — when the Terps failed on a 2-point conversion in overtime to lose 52-51 under interim coach Matt Canada to what was then the No. 3 team in the counter — as it was of Maryland’s 34-27 defeat to No. 4 Michigan earlier this season in Ann Arbor. That game, too, left Locksley hoping that his program was heading in the right direction.
While congratulating the Buckeyes and saying they are worthy of their ranking, Locksley credited his players for what was likely their best performance of the season, particularly in light of how poorly the team had played and how mightily Tagovailoa had struggled with a balky knee, not to mention a bout of insecurity after being battered like a tackling dummy.
“I’m really proud of those guys in our locker room, not because we’re close, that’s not how we approach this thing,” Locksley said. “We’re never satisfied with a loss, obviously. What you saw today was us go blow for blow with the team I consider to be one of the best in the country. And when I started this thing this week, the question I asked our team was, ‘Where were we?
“I saw a team take accountability for how we played the past couple of weeks. I saw a team that was disappointed. To me, those were the type of signs we need to have. That’s the mentality we need to have as we work to take the next step. I saw growth. People say, ‘Where’s the growth?’ Point to games like today, to games like Michigan . Not because they’re close, but how we competed against those teams.”
As did everyone inside SECU Stadium, Locksley saw Tagovailoa outplay Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, who some consider the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. Tagovailoa, who had completed just 21 of 45 passes for 151 yards and one meaningless touchdown the past two weeks, was a dazzling 26 of 36 for 293 yards, throwing for two touchdowns and running for one.
“He looked like the old (No.) 3 today,” Locksley said of Tagovailoa. “He’s taken a lot of stuff (in terms of criticism) around here with how he’s played the last couple of games. … I thought 3 played really well, he had that look. I know he worked his tail off this week. You saw the competitive nature in him. He plays in the air, he threw the ball really well. He plays with his feet. He gave us a chance, and that’s all you can ask of your quarterback.”
The Terps made plenty of the self-destructing mistakes that have cost them throughout Locksley’s tenure. Most damaging was the first blocked punt of senior Colton Spangler’s career that led to a touchdown, and a run of 17 unanswered points by Ohio State in the the third quarter.
But the Terps also made enough plays to throw a huge scare into the Buckeyes.
Still, Locksley looked at some of those plays that ultimately cost the Terps in the end.
“Obviously, we need to work harder and turn these into W’s,” Locksley said. “When you play against the best, you can’t expect them to help you. Good teams don’t need help. Today, anytime we created some momentum, we give up a big kickoff return. We create some momentum, we get a punt blocked. But the resiliency this team has shown all year except for a couple of games was on display today.”
Trailing 27-21 after Tagovailoa’s 5-yard touchdown run and a 2-point conversion to wide receiver Jacob Copeland, Ohio State ran back the ensuing kickoff 46 yards, leading to another touchdown that made it a two-score game. Then came the blocked extra point that Jakorian Bennett ran back 80 yards for a safety that cut the deficit back to 10 and a seven-play, 74-yard drive that saw Tagovailoa, forced out of the pocket, find Jeshaun Jones for a 1-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone with a little under 10 minutes left.
With a chance to get the ball back with four minutes to go, Maryland was called offside on a third-and-2 at the Ohio State 31. While the defense eventually held and forced the Buckeyes to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Noah Ruggles, the Terps had burned all their timeouts and had just 42 seconds left to go 84 yards. Instead, Tagovailoa got sacked for a seven-yard loss on first down and an eight-yard loss on second down, losing the ball as he was thrown to the ground.
“The best thing, we fought hard,” Bennett said. “We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game and they’re the No. 2 team in the country. We don’t believe in moral victories but at the same time, we went out there and fought. We had them right where we wanted them. We just have to finish.”
Tight end C.J. Dippre, who caught one of Tagovailoa’s touchdowns, saw another sign of progress.
It didn’t even come on the field.
“I think the only difference between all our games this season and this game in the fourth quarter was that the student section was actually there,” Dippre said. “Fans were still there in the fourth quarter. Otherwise it was just a nameless, faceless opponent.”
So maybe one segment of the fanbase is beginning to believe Locksley can build the program he wants to see. On Saturday, at least, that seemed like a real possibility.
Don Markus covered college sports at The Baltimore Sun, where he was on staff for 35 years. He is the author of “100 Things Maryland Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” and was a producer for the podcast series “Len Bias: A Mixed Legacy.”