Lock­sley era opens — and it’s not dull

The Washington Post Sunday - - WASHINGTONPOST.COM/SPORTS - Dan Stein­berg dan.stein­berg@wash­post.com For more by Dan Stein­berg, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/dc­sports­bog

bal­ti­more — The first win of the Mike Lock­sley era will have to wait. It might take a while, too. So in the mean­time, say this for his first loss: It wasn’t dull.

Af­ter two weeks preach­ing a mes­sage of sport-as-joy and youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance, Mary­land’s in­terim coach flung his re­ju­ve­nated Terps into an NFL sta­dium against Penn State (5-2). It took nearly four ex­haust­ing hours for the Nit­tany Lions to snag a 31-30 vic­tory in a game jammed with too many ridicu­lous morsels and slap­stick mis­steps to re­count.

But af­ter the gym-class rules and unin­spired at­mos­phere of the dour Randy Ed­sall era, this was rain­bow cot­ton candy and pop mu­sic — “a new fresh start,” as former quar­ter­back Scott McBrien put it be­fore the game.

No, one-point losses to re­gional ri­vals aren’t the sort of leg­end you pass down to your grand­chil­dren. And with a men­ac­ing next month, this may have been Lock­sley’s last, best chance to snatch a mem­o­rable win. In­stead — thanks to five turnovers, among other groan­ers — a four-game los­ing streak crept closer to Novem­ber.

Even if you wore one of Ed­sall’s for­bid­den ball­caps — pulled down ex­tra low — it would be im­pos­si­ble not to see Mary­land’s im­prove­ment in its first game post-lib­er­a­tion. Sure, there were the ag­o­niz­ing turnovers, bad penal­ties and re­peated catas­tro­phes in the sec­ondary. Penn State’s Chris­tian Hack­en­berg — who had gone over 160 yards pass­ing in just two of his seven starts — threw for 315 yards on just 13 com­ple­tions. Play­ing in Joe Flacco’s home sta­dium, he oc­ca­sion­ally ap­peared elite.

Still, if there were a ques­tion about the wis­dom of fir­ing a coach mid­sea­son, Satur­day pro­vided the an­swer. The life­less and al­most un­watch­able Mary­land of­fense be­came at least cu­ri­ously en­ter­tain­ing. The Terps dom­i­nated the first half and wound up out-gain­ing Penn State by more than 100 yards. They took their first sec­ond-half lead in a month, fell be­hind and then took the lead again. The Terps ran their most plays of the sea­son and turned a game with the Big Ten’s fourth-ranked de­fense into one of those wacky Big 12 shootouts, in which ev­ery drive is just a pre­lude and mo­men­tum shifts are barely no­ticed be­fore the next wave crashes down.

“Guys took it upon them­selves and looked in the mir­ror and de­cided to make some changes and give more ef­fort,” run­ning back Bran­don Ross said. “I saw a dif­fer­ent team to­day. There was a lot more en­ergy and fo­cus. Ev­ery­body no­ticed it.”

Re­mem­ber, this Mary­land team en­tered the week­end 126th of 127 teams in pass­ing ef­fi­ciency, 112th in time of pos­ses­sion and dead last in the coun­try in turnover mar­gin. It was com­ing off three straight losses by a com­bined 88 points — the team’s worst stretch in one sea­son since 1993. And now there were fans in red chant­ing “Let’s go Mary­land” dur­ing a tense fourth quar­ter against a bowl team. Was it fun? Well, it was a hell of a lot more fun than a 39-point loss to West Vir­ginia or a shutout by Michi­gan.

Which brings us to Lock­sley’s big­gest talk­ing point since tak­ing over, one that echoed AD Kevin An­der­son’s ad­vice to play­ers: “Go out there and have fun.” The 45-year old sounded less like a stressed-out coach au­di­tion­ing for his dream job than an en­cour­ag­ing camp coun­selor, de­scrib­ing him­self as a sub­sti­tute teacher and urg­ing his play­ers to re­dis­cover the back­yard game of their youth.

“He knows per­son­al­i­ties. He un­der­stands sit­u­a­tions. He un­der­stands the cli­mate of a sit­u­a­tion,” said former Mary­land star La­Mont Jor­dan, one of Lock­sley’s first high-pro­file re­cruits. “That’s how it was when I played for him: Dur­ing the week you put in your time and you pre­pared, but when you go out there on Satur­day, you just fly around.”

It wasn’t just the mu­sic at prac­tice and the re­laxed mood around the team’s fa­cil­ity; Lock­sley all but de­clared that the Terps would be emp­ty­ing out their play­book, telling a ra­dio show last week that he was con­sid­er­ing on­side kicks, fake punts, re­verses and dou­ble passes.

Mary­land might as well have put Willy Wonka on the side­line early Satur­day af­ter­noon: There were In­sta­gram images of locker-room hi­jinks and play­ers hop­ping up and down on the side­lines, wav­ing tow­els and howl­ing at the crowd. Even the of­fi­cial ra­dio broad­cast be­gan its pregame show by talk­ing about mer­ri­ment; it was easy to imag­ine Johnny Hol­l­i­day sip­ping on fruit punch while wear­ing shades.

And when the game started, all that was miss­ing was a Nerf ball and an as­sort­ment of parked cars to ma­neu­ver around. Lock­sley had quar­ter­back Perry Hills run the same fre­netic of­fense he de­buted two weeks ago at Ohio State, mix­ing a few deep balls with a whole bunch of dashes up the mid­dle, with some hurry-up thrown in for good mea­sure. He brought in con­verted full­back Shane Cock­er­ille to take a few snaps at quar­ter­back and had him pitch the ball to cor­ner­back Will Likely. Drop the ball on a wild pitchout in the red zone, as Mary­land did late in the first half ? Hey, that hap­pens in the back yard, too.

Lock­sley’s en­treaty to play­ers was don’t be timid and don’t be ten­ta­tive. He told his as­sis­tants to play as many play­ers as they could. He told his en­tire locker room to fa­vor ag­gres­sion. And the re­sult­ing thrill ride re­flected all of that.

Th­ese next few weeks may be for­got­ten af­ter the school makes its coach­ing hire. But play­ers aren’t likely think­ing about job rank­ings or fundrais­ing ne­ces­si­ties or what the pro­gram will look like in a decade. Lock­sley’s friends have said his re­cruit­ing magic is largely based on his hu­man touch; they also said that same skill will carry him through this tran­si­tion.

“He’s go­ing to let you be who you are,” Jor­dan said. “Those things are crit­i­cal: to be able to be who you are, to be able to show your per­son­al­ity and just go out there and have fun. You don’t get that every­where.”

A new coach didn’t mu­tate th­ese Terps into a bowl team. For one day, at least, he changed the way they played.

Of course, the masochists might glance at the team’s up­com­ing sched­ule: at Iowa, vs. Wis­con­sin, at Michi­gan State. That doesn’t sound like much fun at all.

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Mike Lock­sley, in his de­but as Mary­land in­terim coach, emp­tied the play­book and im­plored the Ter­rap­ins to have fun. It worked.

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