COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Say this for Mike Locksley, he has his finger on the pulse of this Maryland football team, and yes, there is still a pulse despite six straight losses and elimination from the postseason bowl picture with last week’s heartbreaking loss.
The Terrapins aren’t packing it in on 2015. Not even close. Listen to Will Likely, Maryland’s all-everything little guy with a huge heart: “It’s very frustrating. We’re so close and we just fall short. Our goal is to just keep fighting. We’re not worrying about our record or the scoreboard. At the end of the day, we still have to go out and play games, and one thing that we do have is we have a lot of pride.”
That pride will again be on display Nov. 14 when the Terrapins (2-7 overall, 0-5 Big Ten) travel to No. 14 Michigan State for a noon clash in Spartan Stadium. “Sparty,” of course, is coming their first defeat, a 39-38 heartbreaker at Nebraska that has for all purposes knocked Michigan State (8-1, 4-1) out of the championship playoff picture.
“We’ve discussed the fact they’re a team that just had a tough loss for their program, a team that was in the talks for the college football playoffs,” said Locksley. “There are two ways teams respond to a loss like that. They either come out with a pretty mean attitude or disposition or it can linger. Knowing how they’re coached, I would anticipate the first being the case. We’ve got to be prepared that these guys are going to have a little chip on their shoulder.”
The Terrapins have been carrying around a boulder on their shoulders, the weight of a disappointing season that got their coach fired, and now running a gauntlet that includes a fourth ranked team among the last six games.
“Right now we are playing for pride, Coach Locks and everybody else feels that way,” said backup quarterback Shane Cockerille, one of many players with more of a stake in the action since Locksely took over. “We want to send the seniors out on a high note. They deserve it. And you don’t want to give up and back down. Nobody that plays college football will ever do that. We’re playing for pride and each other and Coach Locks.”
Locksley is 0-3 since taking over the program over the bye week. Maryland dropped that tough 31-30 decision to Penn State Oct. 10 in Baltimore, battled No. 10 Iowa tough in a 31-15 loss, and then fell 31-24 against 8-win Wisconsin last week in a game in which heavy underdog Maryland just wouldn’t go away.
“I really feel this is the nucleus of a team that can contend for a Big Ten championship, and that they’ve got to continue to prepare, give the effort of that type of team,” said Locksley. “As I told the seniors, this is their legacy. We still have the opportunity to make the best out of the situation.”
Bu now it’s a particularly peeved Michigan State team for Maryland, back on the road, and while Locksley talks of the challenge and opportunity and the team being excited, there won’t be many people expecting the Terrapins to keep up with NFL-caliber quarterback Connor Cook and the Spartans.
Locksley talked about the improvement on Maryland’s offense in making a few plays down the field, not enough, but a few, and that’s progress as defenses stack the box to take away Perry Hills’ strong suit in the read option and force Maryland to throw.
“The area we need to continue to improve is the consistency of our possession passing game,” said the coach. “We’ve got some guys, that if they get the ball in space, they’ve got the ability to make guys miss in Vern (Jacobs), DeAndre Lane, Taivon Jacobs and all those guys. We just haven’t been as consistent in our base passing attack in making the right decisions and throwing the right kind of football.”
Lane had a 41-yard play against Wisconsin, making a start for the injured Lavern Jacobs. Then Jacobs, on a gimpy knee with a bulky brace, came back to play late, and catch a 27-yard score from Caleb Rowe that brought Maryland to within a touchdown with 2:39 left to play.
“I’m feeling great,” said Jacobs of his health. “I was at full go (Nov. 10). It felt great to be back. I’m going to be ready this Saturday [Nov. 14].”
Despite missing the Iowa game, Lavern Jacobs still leads the team with 28 receptions, 320 yards and three receiving scores. Freshman D.J. Moore, who also has three scoring catches, is next with 17 grabs and 273 yards. The young receiving corps has improved as the season has gone along after some early growing pains.
Dropped passes, bad routes, missed blocks are becoming fewer and fewer, yet every game something seems to hold the Terrapins back. Last week, it was 11 penalties for 79 yards. Suffice to say, correcting that part of the game has been a priority this week heading out to play another ranked foe.
“You can’t have that many penalties going against any team and expect to win, but especially not against the No. 1 defense in the nation,” said Jacobs of the stingy Badgers. “We have to focus on minimizing the penalties. If we go in there (to Michigan State) and execute the things we need to execute, we can win that game. Every week we’ve kind of been beating ourselves. We’ve been in every game this year, but haven’t executed on the small things.”
That’s one motivation, to finally play that perfect game and run on all cylinders, but there’s much more, said the junior receiver. “You just have to keep pushing through. Just because we’re out of the bowl game, doesn’t mean we’re going to give up. We still want to win and get the best record possible.”
No matter what happens at Michigan State, the coming weeks, if this tough Terrapin team can hang together, look more promising. Another basketball school, Indiana, with four wins, rolls in for Senior Day on Nov. 21, and then Nov. 28, Maryland’s season wraps up at 3-win Rutgers.
Make no mistake, though. Jacobs and his teammates aren’t throwing in the towel on shocking the nation Nov. 14. “They’re kind of wounded coming off that loss and I think we’ve got a great opportunity to go in there and upset that team, and build something for next year,” he said. “We’re going to play our butts off.”
More ‘Wildcat’ Likely
Cockerille, the star-crossed quarterback-turned-special-teamer-turned-fullback-turned-back-to-quarterback, is setting the world on fire statistically but his college career has heated up under Locksley.
The 6-2, 235-pound sophomore has thrown one pass, but has rushed four times for 14 yards, including a long gain of 13 yards last week against the No. 1 scoring defense in the land, Wisconsin. He often lines up as more of a change-of-pace in the “Wildcat” formation, though he fills that role because he has skills similar to Hills.
Truth be told, Cockerille is a super-sized version of Hills and more of a sledgehammer than a change of pace.
“When (Randy) Edsall had to go, Locks called me in and told me he wanted me to move back (to quarterback),” said Cockerille. “He said from what the offense does, it fits a lot of what I can do running the ball. There were a few glimpses of that at Wisconsin. Me running the ball made me think back to my high school days (at Baltimore’s Gilman) a little bit. It’s a lot of fun. It feels like I have a lot of contribution to the team, both on offense and special teams.”
“When we made the move of Shane back to quarterback, with the skillset that we have with Perry, it just enables us to take a few of the quarterback-designed runs off Perry to make sure he’s healthy to execute for us down the road,” explained Locksley. “Shane’s a big body. He has the ability make plays with his feet and come in and execute as he did this past week.”
Cockerille said the time at fullback this summer and fall helped him. “The physical aspect helped, and when I was playing quarterback I was younger. Fullback allowed me to see a different perspective, see what the backs are doing. I think when I moved back I had a little better understanding of what everybody is doing.”
He has a firm grasp of his role and what makes things work, and while Cockerille is a big bruiser of a runner, a lot of his success depends on one of the smallest and quickest Terps, especially now that defenses are opting to stop the read-option runs by quarterbacks.
“They see me and they see Perry, and a lot of teams say they’re not going to let the quarterback beat them with our feet,” he said. “They’re going to make us throw the ball. The good thing is when I go in, it’s usually me and Will (Likely) together. They have to defend both of us and then it’s either me getting the ball or him getting the ball.”
“Shane is one of those hybrid quarterback-types,” said Likely. “He can run the ball, throw the ball, so you have to account for both. I feel very comfortable with him.”
Cockerille, meanwhile, respects the Spartans but thinks the Terrapins can make some plays this week. “Their front seven is really good. They’re obviously a stout defense. It’s Big Ten football. We have to attack them with our athletic ability and talent on the perimeter. A lot of these Big Ten teams are very good up front. You’re not going to line up in a Power-I and just run at them. You have to use talent and speed on the outside.”
And that brings us to Likely who is all of that, and with teams more and more reluctant to kick the ball his way or throw it at him on defense, the Maryland coaching staff has had to become creative in finding ways to get the ball to their playmaker.
Likely seemed shy about being Maryland’s leading rusher last week with his 56 yards. He wanted to talk more about how the defensive front seven stopped Wisconsin’s running game, a goal achieved. When pressed, though, Likely did offer this: “It’s just something trying to help the team, trying to bring that spark back to the offense. Anything I can do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Locksley on the Missouri Situation
Locksley got a couple of questions about the situation at the University of Missouri, where a strong stance by the entire football team played a big role in the university president stepping down in the wake of allegations he didn’t do enough to stem racism on the campus.
Thoughtfully, Locksley navigated around the hypotheticals presented and cut to the heart of the matter regarding leading a football team:
“I can tell you this, what I share with my team is the power of unity, and that’s something we continue to talk about. The last few weeks, as a team, we’ve come together and we’ve tried to do things to build that bond. What I told the team this morning about the Missouri situation was that it’s amazing what happens when a team comes together….I do believe as a parent, and I always look at coaching as being a parent, that you support your children when they’re right. And when they’re wrong you teach them, and use teachable moments. I think the Missouri situation is an awesome teachable moment. And again, I would be in favor of making sure as a parent that if the guys or the players are right, that you support them. If it’s a teachable moment where it may not be right, then you use it as that.”