Locksley era opens — and it’s not dull
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.
Mike Locksley, in his debut as Maryland interim coach, emptied the playbook and implored the Terrapins to have fun. It worked.