“The biggest thing that I’m worried about is just finishing off the right way,” sophomore wide receiver Brian Cobbs said. “Yeah, it’s not what I wanted as far as not being in a bowl game and stuff like that, but I know we can finish off strong. We still have room to finish off strong.”
That starts Saturday against Nebraska, whose disappointment in this season rivals Maryland’s. After many pegged the Cornhuskers as contenders to win the Big Ten West, they have just two wins in conference play, against Illinois and Northwestern. Maryland has defeated only Rutgers. But the Cornhuskers (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) still cling to the hope of bowl eligibility, needing wins against the Terps and Iowa to close the year.
For Maryland (3-7, 1-6), the matchup serves as a brief reprieve in a stretch of difficult opponents backloaded on the schedule, and thus an opportunity to prove the program can be competitive in the Big Ten. Five of Maryland’s six conference defeats have been by at least 25 points. Nebraska’s struggles this year offer a clear path to avoid another blowout loss; not being able to keep pace would raise the question of how much, if any, progress the program has made in Locksley’s first season.
Locksley and the players believe they have seen progress despite the results and the way this season swung from an inspiring 2-0 start to a slog. A loss is just a “snapshot of who you are that day,” Locksley said, referencing Alabama’s 44-16 loss to Clemson in last season’s national title game, when he was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.
Locksley mentioned how running back Javon Leake has made strides in his off-the-field role and the way injured running back Jake Funk still stops by his office, enthusiastic about where this program is heading. Locksley said he’s more excited to be Maryland’s coach now than he was when he accepted the job.
“Those are the small signs and those are the small steps of progress,” Locksley said. “I think, as we continue to build on the architecture that we're going to build this program with, that those are the small victories that maybe you don't see when you have wins and losses.”
The players have embraced the new offensive and defensive systems, senior defensive lineman Brett Kulka said. With the season reaching its close, 120 minutes of football can still showcase progress and belief.
“Maybe our overall goals might not be there, but you can still go out and play for someone that you know that you put a grind in with over the whole course of the year, course of your career,” Kulka said. “I think that’s something that as a whole the team recognizes and understands. We’re willing to play for the guy next to you.”
Maryland will honor Kulka and 15 others before the game as part of its senior day festivities, adding yet another piece of motivation for a Maryland team that, on the surface, has little for which to play.
Seniors such as Kulka who have been with the program for at least five years have gone through three full-time head coaches and two interim coaches, along with numerous coordinators and assistants. The players repeatedly had to embrace new staffs, systems and cultures, far removed from the group of coaches involved with their recruitment to Maryland.
“It’s been a long ride, and we’ve seen a lot of change, a lot of turnover,” said Kulka, who’s finishing his sixth season at Maryland. “But really, when you see that turnover, you turn back to the guys in the locker room. You know that while the coaches may be different, you still have the same guys in the locker room.”
Locksley has insisted that even at this point in the season, the staff’s focus remains in the present. Locksley said this week a solid outing is most important for this team, not for recruiting, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt those efforts. While giving young players opportunities on the field helps with their development, that’s not the priority.
Soon, planning and preparation will turn toward the 2020 season. But for now Maryland wants to avoid heading into the offseason on a seven-game losing streak. So for the young players, a solid finish could springboard them into next season, adding some assurance that might have otherwise been lacking and faith in where Locksley is hoping to take the Terps.
“If we can finish these games how we want to finish them off — first sending off the seniors the correct way,” Cobbs said, “the following week, just finishing off the entire season the right way — I feel like that would not only leave more hope with the guys, but just leave guys feeling more confident.”