Michael Locksley entered this season with lofty ambitions, the product of a steadily improved roster headlined by a veteran quarterback and a team culture carefully cultivated over his first four seasons. The coach, for the first time since he was hired in 2019, said the Terps were ready to compete for Big Ten championships.

A 5-0 start to the season served as initial validation before a three-game losing streak marred Maryland’s record and forced a reexamination.

“We’re a team that we talked about being ready to compete for championships. But, obviously, we’re just not there yet,” Locksley said Tuesday. “But that won’t stop us from continuing to do the necessary work to get us to that point.”

He expanded on those comments Thursday, saying they were purely about Maryland’s recent results — an explainable loss to No. 3 Ohio State before two dismal one-score defeats against seemingly inferior Big Ten opponents Illinois and Northwestern.

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James Franklin had two stints as an assistant coach at Maryland. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

“Three losses, you kind of eliminate yourself. ... We hadn’t played to the level that [we] needed to be in the running,” he said.

Now they get No. 9 Penn State, a team led by former Maryland assistant James Franklin. The Nittany Lions (7-1) are 47-4-1 all-time against the Terps.

Locksley is 1-3 against Penn State, a 16-point win in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season among a trio of losses with an average margin of 35 points. The Terps coach said the matchup was “not a rivalry game” because of the imbalanced record between the teams in the week leading up to last year’s matchup.

A 30-0 loss did little to bridge the chasm between the schools — history and Maryland’s recent play suggest this year won’t be much different.

Part of Maryland may always look back on Franklin as the one who got away. He spent two stints with the Terps — a wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator from 2000-04, overlapping with Locksley, and associate head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2008-10.

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Locksley was tasked by then-head coach Ron Vanderlinden to vet Franklin at College Park bar R.J. Bentley’s, per a story from The Washington Post.

“We have a great working relationship. We see each other when we see each other. We don’t text Merry Christmas to each other,” Locksley said. “He’s a head coach in the Big Ten. We see each other when we do Big Ten things. ... I don’t know what you want me to say.”

Franklin was set to be Maryland’s next head coach — it was written into his contract. But when then-coach Ralph Friedgen chose to stay for an 11th season, Franklin moved on to lead Vanderbilt before joining the Nittany Lions.

Despite that potentially acrimonious ending, Franklin expressed gratitude to the program he said was his “first big break in the profession.”

“I’ve got tremendous respect for the university as a whole and the athletic department. Was there for a long time, two different times,” he said Tuesday. “Was with Coach Locksley and got a lot of respect for him and what he’s been able to do throughout his career.”

But that respect hasn’t made him ease up on the Terps — perhaps he’s trying to remind Maryland of its mistake with every drubbing.