“We didn’t prepare the way we should have throughout the week,” running back Jake Funk said Tuesday when asked to reflect on what went wrong.
“Our mind-set wasn’t there,” tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo said.
So perhaps in some ways the loss last September serves as a cautionary tale. In others, it feels as if it took place in a different millennium.
The 2018 matchup was one of 12 games in a season where football became a secondary act for Maryland. The fallout from the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and reports alleging an abusive team culture led Maryland to place coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave a couple of weeks before the season began. Matt Canada stepped in as the interim coach, the first time he had ever led a program. Players grieved. The daily routine was interrupted by players and staff being interviewed and surveyed by committees tasked with assessing the program’s culture and the day McNair suffered heatstroke during a team workout. Chaos and controversy were what made this team nationally relevant last year.
Maryland’s entire coaching staff has changed since then. The team has benefited from an infusion of talent and leadership via the NCAA transfer portal. The mind-set, culture, approach — it’s all new. So heading into the first road game of the season, there isn’t an overwhelming sense among Terrapins players that they need to avenge last year’s defeat . They don’t need to prove the program has evolved since then. That much is obvious.
But the arcs of the seasons still have some similarities. Last year began with an emotional win over then-No. 23 Texas before the Temple loss two weeks later. This season’s early marquee win came in Week 2, a blowout of No. 21 Syracuse, after which Maryland surged to No. 21 in the Associated Press poll. For players who have spent their careers in College Park, even sixth-year offensive lineman Sean Christie, this is the first time they have been ranked. Maryland last appeared in the top 25 in 2013.
The players, though, believe they have the tools to handle the hype and avoid a letdown Saturday in Philadelphia. (Maryland is favored by a touchdown, and Temple is projected to win narrowly by some advanced analytics.) With Locksley’s Alabama-influenced approach, he doesn’t talk about winning. The players focus on improving and repeating the practice habits that led to those first two blowout wins.
“I said to them today: ‘Why would you change the recipe? Why would you do something different this week that you didn’t do in Week 1 [a 79-0 victory over Howard] and 2 that helped us have success on Saturday?’” Locksley said Wednesday. “And that’s what we try to do is keep 'em consistent, stay doing the things the way they need to be done.”
The players repeatedly mention the standard instilled at Maryland since Locksley arrived, the one that should mean they play with the same intensity against Temple (1-0) as they did against Syracuse. Ranked or unranked, receiving some national attention or not, Maryland doesn’t want to be a team that responds to this early high with a thud.
“It’s part of being a more mature team now,” fifth-year offensive lineman Ellis McKennie said. “Hopefully, we can make this transition.”
Locksley, who knew little of losing in his three years at Alabama, helps fuel that transition. But players also point to just before his hire, to mid-November, when they almost knocked off Ohio State, because despite that loss they realized they could compete with the top programs in the Big Ten.
It’s still early in the season, but this is all new for most of the players. While watching the Eagles-Redskins game Sunday afternoon in the football facility, McKennie heard about the No. 21 ranking from a student manager. The lineman called that accomplishment an “incredible experience.” The players enjoyed it, let themselves feel what they never have at Maryland before they replaced the pages focusing on Syracuse in their notebooks with the ones for Temple. But at least pausing to appreciate that feeling — and hoping it will still exist a week later — holds value, too.
“We have some leaders, especially with some of the guys transferring in and some of the older guys who have been through a lot in this program who have never really tasted this kind of success,” McKennie said. “We don’t want it going away anytime soon.”