There are few ways for Maryland’s football season not to be a disappointment.
In early October, the Terps entered halftime against Ohio State tied with a chance to notch a massive upset and move to 6-0.
They were outscored by 20 points in the second half. That started a four-game losing streak that included disappointing results against supposedly inferior Big Ten foes Illinois and Northwestern and yet another blowout loss to Penn State.
Maryland avoided a total catastrophe with its win over Nebraska to clinch bowl eligibility, but this season will still fall below the Terps’ expectations — particularly because their two defeats to top-tier conference contenders featured massive margins.
But, with No. 2 Michigan traveling to SECU Stadium, Big Noon Kickoff setting up on La Plata Beach and a host of seniors foundational to the program’s rejuvenation set to play their last game in College Park, the Terps’ penultimate regular-season game gives them an opportunity to flip how the campaign is remembered from underwhelming to indelible.
“As I told them, what a great opportunity to end your career here in the shell against a reigning champion. ... What a great opportunity and a great story to tell your kids down the road if we can put it all together,” coach Michael Locksley said. “There’s no doubt that this group is deserving of this opportunity. I’m excited to see them go out and play to their ability this Saturday.”
Maryland is 0-3 against Michigan in Locksley’s tenure with a combined score of 131-52. It’s similar to his team’s performances against Penn State and Ohio State.
The Terps’ only win against one of them since Locksley took over in 2019 is against the Nittany Lions in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. They got closer in two of them last year, losing by seven to the Wolverines and 13 to the Buckeyes, but real program-changing impact only comes with a win.
“What a breakthrough this would be for our program, for us to put it all together this week, show up Saturday and execute and play a damn near perfect game,” Locksley said. “Our players don’t have to play above their ability to win this game. We just have to play to our ability, and I feel confident that we’ll get our guys prepared to do that.”
Friday will be the last home game of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa’s illustrious Terps’ career. The program leader in basically every meaningful passing statistic is looking for a defining punctuation mark.
“I think it’s going to be very special. ... I know that a big-time win like this would be a good confidence booster for the Maryland program for years to come,” he said. “At the end of the day, we gotta go do it.”
Tagovailoa is one of 24 seniors who will be honored before the game, a list that includes safety Beau Brade, tight end Corey Dyches, left tackle Delmar Glaze, linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II and cornerback Tarheeb Still.
Those players were integral to the resurgence of Locksley’s program, one that won three games in his first season and has more than doubled that figure in each of the past two.
Even the disappointment of this season is predicated on raised expectations — making a bowl game is the floor for Maryland, something that wasn’t the case over the past decade.
“It’s a blessing to see the progress from where we [were] to where are we now,” Tagovailoa said. “The expectations for a Maryland football team [are] high now, which is good. ... It’s all a blessing and it’s a testament to Coach Locks and all the coaches over here, everyone putting in their work and paying off with three bowl games.”
For all of the quarterback’s achievements, his performance against those top-tier teams has been more turbulent. Tagovailoa has thrown nine interceptions in nine games against Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State.
He’s mixed exceptional performances, dicing up Ohio State last season for 293 yards and two touchdowns, with dismal ones like his 196-yard, two-pick day against the Buckeyes this year.
But all that could be undone in one game.
With one glimmering performance that ends with the scoreboard in Maryland’s favor, Tagovailoa could entrench himself and his team in the program’s lore, providing the kind of leap forward that fundamentally reshapes what Maryland football is for this season and many to come.