Michael Locksley has had enough of dumb penalties — he’s seen too many of them in his time as Maryland’s head coach. Saturday against Charlotte marked the most recent example and prompted him to make a decisive change.
Terps running back Antwain Littleton II and Charlotte defensive lineman Eyabi Okie-Anoma both remained on the ground well after the whistle following a 1st-and-goal run. The latter kept trying to wrest the ball away and drew Littleton’s ire.
The back shoved him to the ground and was flagged for unnecessary roughness, turning a 2nd-and-goal from the five-yard line into one from the 20. Maryland ultimately kicked a second-quarter field goal on what should’ve been a prime opportunity to score its first touchdown.
Locksley sat Littleton for the rest of the game.
“I’m tired of us doing stuff after the whistle. … We get a personal foul because of being emotional. The only way you fix stuff like that is by what happened today, you put him on the bench. ... That’s how we’re going to play this thing. If guys don’t play to our standard, if we’re going to have the dumb penalties, you’re going to be on the bench,” the coach said.
Flags have been a consistent issue for the Terps during Locksley’s tenure. So have drops and slow starts. All have shown up in the first two games of this year and even though Maryland is 2-0, soon-approaching better opponents could exploit those issues and sink Locksley’s team.
Penalties have not actually been the primary issue — Locksley’s irritation is likely due to his team’s history. Maryland currently ranks seventh in the Big Ten with 10 flags through two games. Last year, it had 101, the worst in the conference and the eighth-most among Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
The Terps were second-worst and worst in the Big Ten in 2021 and 2020 respectively.
“It’s just about … staying mentally locked in,” defensive lineman Donnell Brown said, adding that some of the penalties weren’t “selfish,” but ones the Terps “could control.”
Despite playing two teams that have a combined minus-4 turnover margin, Maryland is just even in the turnover battle after throwing two picks against Charlotte. Everyone remembers the first — Taulia Tagovailoa’s ill-fated pass to the flat that was picked and returned for a touchdown — but few recalled the circumstances that put the Terps at their own 13-yard line.
The kickoff bounced off Octavian Smith Jr.’s hands; luckily for Maryland, it came to Roman Hemby, who alertly scooped it up. He’d save the day again on the Terps’ first touchdown drive when Billy Edwards Jr. fumbled the snap on a fourth-and-one. Hemby again grabbed the loose ball and ran for the first down.
“It just comes down to discipline and sometimes those plays in the moment sound like the right thing to do … but it comes back to hurt the team and I feel like it’s best that we get it out now,” Hemby said.
But the Terps aren’t turning on each other or issuing blame for their mistakes. Hemby said Maryland will need Littleton and that he trusts his backfield mate.
“I’m his brother’s keeper so I picked him up after that and I know that he won’t make the mistake again,” he said.
Smith, meanwhile, would also drop the opening kickoff of the second half. This one occurred in the end zone so he grabbed it for a touchback.
Maryland doesn’t have to look far to see how a mistake on a kickoff can swing a game. Its loss against Michigan last season started when the ball bounced off Tai Felton’s head and to the Wolverines, who scored the game’s opening touchdown a play later in what ended up as a seven-point loss.
Smith also leads the Terps with three drops, per Pro Football Focus. Seven of Tagovailoa’s passes have been dropped this year, tied for fourth-most among FBS teams and the most in the Big Ten.
He was tied for fifth in that stat among conference quarterbacks last year. In 2021, he was first by a far margin — the gap between him and second was as large as the one between second and seventeenth.
Maryland overcame all these gaffes because of its vast talent advantage. That won’t exist in future weeks.
That’s why the message Locksley delivered to Littleton with the benching is one he’s hammering home for the rest of his team regarding its sloppy play: Fix it, or else.