COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It had to end like this.
In a season wrapping up with more questions than answers, fittingly, we won’t know Maryland’s starting quarterback until just before the noon kickoff Nov. 28 at Rutgers.
That was the big revelation from interim coach Mike Locksley’s weekly press conference in the Tyser Tower at Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.
“Both Perry (Hills) and Caleb (Rowe) have been cleared to practice on a limited basis at this point, and I expect both those two to be game-time decisions for us,” said Locksley, perhaps taking a page from the Randy Edsall playbook of trying to keep opponents in the dark about starting quarterbacks.
The Terrapins (2-9, 0-7) were down to Baltimore’s Shane Cockerille at quarterback when we last tuned in Nov. 21 in the 47-28 loss to Indiana in the home finale. Starter Perry Hills missed his first start in six contests with mononucleosis, and then Rowe was felled by a head injury and has been under concussion protocol since.
Maryland would have a better chance at snapping the disastrous 8-game losing streak that has already claimed one head coach and imperiled the program’s future, if the more-proven Hills or Rowe could go Nov. 28. Cockerille, a robust rough-and-tumble gamer, was limited in what he could do in the second half against the Hoosiers and they, accordingly, brought everyone up close to the line and made it tough for Maryland to run the ball despite Brandon Ross finishing with a career-high 250 yards and three scores.
Cockerille is a run-the-ball, ask-questions-later QB, not very well-suited to pumping up the passing game, though he will have another week of solid preparation under his belt by the time Maryland plays at Rutgers (4-7, 1-6) Nov. 28.
Freshman wide receiver D.J. Moore thinks the Maryland offense can better this week, no matter who lines up at quarterback. Pace is the answer, he said. “The quick game, just going with tempo and moving the ball fast,” said Moore, who is second on the team with 21 catches for a 14.7-yard average. He has caught at least one pass in the last seven games.
Locksley said the Terrapins would be ready whoever gets that starting nod. Cockerille completed his first passes, going 11-of-22 for 82 yards, but he’d rather run though he was held to 23 yards on 12 carries by the Hoosiers.
Rowe was off to a nice start, 10-of-19 passing for 88 yards, and he had run for 27 yards on four attempts, taking a knee to the helmet on one of those rushes just before the half. For the first time this season, Maryland’s offense didn’t throw any interceptions, and in fact, didn’t have any turnovers. The Terrapins are still ranked 125th of 127 FBS teams, though, with a -18 turnover margin on the season.
“We’re excited as a staff to prepare this team for one last game,” said Locksley, 0-5 as interim this year, though the team has played better on his watch. “Our seniors, again have done a great job of leading us through some tough times and some tough losses. We’re going to do everything in our power to coach these guys and give them a game-plan to go out the right way…We want to finish the job.”
“The job” could be a little less arduous if cornerback/wide receiver/kick returner Will Likely can recover from his ankle injury and suit up. He could not Nov.24, but Locksley left the door open that both he and senior kicker Brad Craddock (wrist injury) could heal up in time to play Nov. 28.
What is certain is that Locksley will get another all-out effort from an increasingly desperate Maryland squad. “Guys are staying positive and we’re all focused on making the most of this last game and going out with a bang,” said sophomore linebacker Jalen Brooks. “We want to give our seniors a game to finish on a high note. I think the energy has been high, especially on the defensive side. “
Brooks said there is also incentive to win one for Locksley. “Definitely. We want to prove to everybody that he is pivotal in bringing everybody together since we lost coach Edsall, and prove to everybody that he is in there and taking care of business, that we are getting better.”
Junior defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson echoed those sentiments and thinks Locksley deserves consideration to keep the head job despite the record.
“He definitely deserves a look,” said Jefferson. “He’s a great guy. He really cares about the players here. He brings a lot of energy. He’s a young guy so he’s very relatable to the players. I feel like he should get a shot. The season didn’t go as planned but you could see some change. The hump we need to get over is the ability to execute, but guys are playing for him and playing hard.”
Since Locksley took over, the Terrapins lost by one point to Penn State, 16 points at No. 10 Iowa, by a touchdown to Wisconsin, by 17 points at No. 14 Michigan State and then blew a 21-3 lead last week against Indiana. No wins, but an appreciable improvement in being competitive.
Locksley said he has not had any talks with the Maryland administration about his future. “Not as of today,” he said.
Looking at the Knights
Maryland has a little extra motivation against the Scarlet Knights, like Maryland in their second year in the Big Ten. Last year, in the first conference meeting of the two schools, the Terrapins led 35-10 at Byrd Stadium before a furious Rutgers rally accounted for a 41-38 Knights’ win.
“What I remember most about last year is that they never lost focus, even when we had them down quite a bit,” said Brooks. “They played with more intensity. I know that they’re going to come out the same way this year.
Rutgers racked up 347 yards passing under then-offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, and had three receivers over 100-yards receiving in that game. All three – Leonte Carroo, Andre Patton and Janarion Grant – return, though there’s a new OC in Ben McDaniels, and a new quarterback in sophomore Chris Laviano. It’s still not good news for a Terrapin defense that allowed 385 yards and four touchdowns passing last week.
Maryland also recorded just one quarterback sack against Indiana, only the second time this season the Terrapins have had that few. They’ve got 35 on the season, a total that ranks 10th nationally. Junior defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is second in the nation with his 13.5 sacks, a figure that now stands as a Maryland single season record.
Despite the passing yards that piled up last weekend, the Maryland defense has been much-improved the second half of the season. “We’ve been playing very well since we started conference play,” said Brooks, a Big Ten All-Academic selection who has two interceptions this season. “We’ve been playing a lot of tough teams but just about every team we’ve played, whether they’re ranked or not, we’ve been holding them below what they normally accomplish. I think that shows what we can accomplish and it has given us some pride.”
Just one opponent has rushed for more than 141 yards against Maryland the last five games, and Indiana was the first team with more than 188 yards passing in the last four contests.
Brooks said it took time for the defensive players to adapt to the new 4-3 scheme this year. “Right after that West Virginia game we just said we’re going to really understand it and what the person next to us is doing. When we played Michigan, we got shut out but we were playing very well statistically. We were making plays all over the field and were very excited. (Gaining) understanding of what we’re supposed to do has been pivotal.”
Jefferson thinks a change in style from up top has made a difference. “Just playing aggressively. (Locksley) just let us go, told guys to play aggressively. He told us to not be scared of making mistakes, just to play fast and play physical.”
Locksley did unlock some of the game for his players, stressing to play carefree and with passion. The Terrapins stack the line to stop the run and they count on the defensive backs to make plays one-on-one in the passing game if the front seven doesn’t get to the quarterback. It has been high-risk, high-reward, and in the demanding Big Ten, opponents have been strong enough to find a way to thwart the Terrapins.
“We’re playing fast and just trying to be playmakers,” said Jefferson. “Especially up front. The second half of the season we’ve tried to be more disruptive and it has helped us.”
Jefferson has certainly benefitted from that mindset. He’s having a breakout season since moving from end in the 3-4 to tackle in 4-3. He is tops among Terp linemen with 39 tackles, 23 solo, and his 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks is second only to Ngakoue. Jefferson had a fumble recovery Nov. 21 to go with an interception earlier this season against Michigan, both athletic plays that transfer to the next level and playing on Sundays.
Right now, though, he’s just focused on finishing this season on a positive note. “We’ve been giving it our all and we just can’t get the win to show for it,” said Jefferson. “Still, we want to show teams it doesn’t matter what the score is or what quarter it is, we’re going to keep playing hard. We’re going to keep giving effort. Teams see that and they respect it. If we can’t get the ‘W,’ we’re going to make the man across from us respect us.”
Jefferson mentioned that the Terrapins had a little added incentive at Rutgers, too. With too many bowl openings for not enough 6-win teams, the Scarlet Knights, at four victories now, could be in contention for a bowl berth with a win Nov. 28, as bowl representatives cast a wider net.
It’s an interesting situation against a program that is already one of Maryland’s two most geographic rivals in the Big Ten. Locksley even called this “Rutgers Week.”
Jefferson smiled. “If we can’t go (to a bowl), we want to take them down with us.”