COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- There was a whole lot of shakin’ going on Oct. 20 at, ahem, Mike Locksley’s weekly Maryland football media luncheon. After the shake-up that made Locksley head coach, Locksley talked of having his team shake off the effects of the change, and focus forward.
Then of course, there was some talk of last year’s Handshakegate, when the Terrapin captains refused to shake hands with Penn State before Maryland’s upset win in Happy Valley.
First thing's first. Senior guard Andrew Zeller assured inquiring minds there would be no repeat of the hands off approach in pregame this season when Penn State and Maryland meet Oct. 24 at 3:30 p.m., at M&T Bank Stadium. “We respect Penn State and we’re going to do everything as planned, we’re going to shake their hands this year,” said Zeller. “They respect us. Last year was kind of a spur of the moment deal before the game.”
That feisty Terrapin attitude carried over in a 20-19 upset in Unhappy Valley, Maryland’s first football win over the Nittany Lions in 53 years, and one that snapped a 28-game non-losing streak for Penn State in the series. The two teams tied in 1989, but Maryland had won just once before in the series, in 1961. Penn State leads the series 35-2-1.
So the Terrapins are looking for a new start in more ways than one, as Locksley debuts at Maryland’s head coach Oct. 24. He has had a lot on his plate lately, and now he’s got the school’s burgeoning Big Ten border rival coming in for his debut.
“The big thing with the changes for us is you don’t want to try to do too much,” he said. “What we’ve tried to focus on as a staff is the mindset of our team. These guys are still young men and the mindset is that sometimes life throws you curves, and what you have to do is keep pressing forward. We’ve tried to emphasize going out and have fun.”
“Fun” has meant music in practice and before team meetings in the football offices. The drills are more competitive and there’s been more raucous team spirit as a part of those moments.
“We walk into team meetings and there’s music playing and it gets the energy going before practice,” said Zeller. “Everybody gets pumped up during the competition drills and that has really boosted morale. We’ve stepped it up. Our backs are against the wall and we’ve got six games to change that.”
Zeller, a native of Red Lion, Pa., played down the rivalry with his state college from State College, Pa. “I really don’t think it’s a rivalry, personally, for me. Fans might look at it (as a rivalry) because of the proximity of the two teams but the whole team, including myself, are just looking at it as the next game. That’s why it’s big for us, because it’s the next one at hand, and it’s the one that could potentially be the turning-point in our season.”
Penn State (5-2, 2-1) had won five games in a row before running into the Buckeye buzzsaw that Maryland knows all about. The Terrapins played well against top-ranked Ohio State two weeks ago before falling 49-28. The game was tied late in the third quarter, though, giving the Terrapins something to build on now through tumultuous times.
“We’re just going to go out there and have fun and be competitive,” said freshman wide receiver D.J. Moore, who had a 52-yard touchdown reception to put the Terps on top at Ohio State early. “We showed we can make plays on the outside and up-top.”
Locksley, preaching positives, sees a big one in his locker room these days: “We’ve got the underdog mentality. Right now I’m sure there aren’t many people that give us a chance to go out and have much success, but our guys are resilient and we have a pretty good corps of players that will come out and play with the passion our fans deserve, play hard and have fun.”
Locksley talked about playing football in its “purest form,” with a joy like you had playing with the neighborhood kids in the backyard. It makes good copy but Locksley and his undermanned staff have been working hard to put some oomph behind the words.
Moore said the team’s veteran leaders have stepped up to lead the way, something Locksley pointed to when he took over the job less than two weeks ago. “(They said) just go out there and have fun and don’t worry about the talking (Penn State does), and just know your assignments.”
If Zeller said Penn State wasn’t a big rival, Moore seemed to have a different take, agreeing the proximity and last year’s result had already turned this annual game into Maryland’s biggest rival. He said there has been a lot of talk between the two teams but that it doesn’t matter once Saturday’sgame kicks off.
“We’re not focusing on it, we’re just going to go out and play,” he said.
‘Game of Thrones: College Park’
There’s even more backstory, almost a “Game of Thrones” subplot this week, too. Locksley and Franklin served on the Maryland staff together under coach Ron Vanderlinden and continued on early in Ralph Friedgen’s tenure, one of the most successful eras in Maryland football history.
Famously, Franklin came back to Maryland after a stint in the NFL, and became offensive coordinator and “coach in waiting” late in Friegden’s tenure, but ultimately the deal fell apart and he ended up head coach at Vanderbilt. Locksley, who went to Illinois and was head coach at New Mexico, came back as offensive coordinator on Edsall’s Maryland staff, and ascended to the head coach job two weeks ago when Edsall was released.
“James has always been a real enthusiastic guy, very passionate from the times we’ve worked together,” recalled Locksley. “From afar I’ve seen how he has matured and grown as a coach and seen the success he has had as a head coach. I’ve got a lot of respect for the job that he has done. Other than that, I’m excited to have a chance to go and compete, and it’s not about James, it’s more about our players and competing against Penn State.”
Locksley is making it all about the players, loosening the reins and removing restrictions on the team. “I told the team let’s not mistake having more fun for being undisciplined or not accountable for playing the game of football the way we want to play. I think the team takes on the personality of it’s leader and with me being the leader the next six-or-seven weeks…when the kids go through tough times, you need to lighten the mood up a little bit. For us and for me, I don’t want out guys to play tight. I don’t want them to think they have to win to save a guy’s job or get a guy a job.”
Cockerille Back at QB
Locksley may have tipped his hand about what the offense will look like now. He asked sophomore fullback Shane Cockerille to move back to quarterback, an indication he wanted a bigger, stronger candidate behind Perry Hills. Part of the decision was that Daxx Garman is “banged up,” and so Cockerille moved right in as co-No. 2 quarterback with Caleb Rowe, heading back to Cockerille’s hometown this weekend.
“If you look at the hits Perry took in Ohio State game, I don’t think his mom is going to be really happy if we continue to let him get hit like that,” said Locksley of another emphasis. “Moving a guy that has a similar skill-set like Shane does, helps.”
The generally genial Locksley bristled at the notion that such a move hinted the Terps would be “one dimensional” on offense, though he did it with a little humor. “I don’t see where moving Shane to quarterback makes us one-dimensional. Those guys are going to have to throw the football. I doubt if we’ll line up in the single wing and just run the ball every play.”
Locksley added that the Terrapins used the bye week to “evaluate all three phases” of his squad, and that “right now I feel really good about the energy of this team.”
Zeller agreed: “We’ve been giving it our all in all these practices in the bye week and starting up again (Oct. 20). That’s just our mentality, to do the best we can.”
The Terrapins are pulling out some other stops, too. The team will wear some Under Armour Flashback uniforms this Saturday, hoping to channel some of the Maryland mojo that produced that victory over Penn State in 1961.
The entirely red and white jersey with two shoulder stripes and white helmet were what the Terps wore when they claimed a 21-17 win over the Nittany Lions, the first victory ever over powerful Penn State.
Zeller offered a real “flashback,” saying the key to controlling Penn State’s potent pass rush and defensive front was “all about fundamentals and technique.”
As for the site of this year’s game, Maryland has a long history of playing in Baltimore, dating all the way back to the program’s first season in 1892 (a loss to Johns Hopkins in Clifton Park). Maryland is 27-21-5 all-time in “Charm City,” playing 44 of its 53 games at Memorial Stadium. The Terrapins were 21-18-5 there, and they’re 3-1 all-time at M&T Bank Stadium, including three straight wins. In two previous games against Penn State at Memorial, Maryland is 0-2.
“Playing in an NFL stadium is very exciting and I think you’ll see a lot of big plays,” said Moore.
“We’re refocused,” said Zeller. “We have half a season to go and we can really change the outcome of the season. We just have to put it on the line every week.”