COLLEGE PARK — If the Maryland Terrapins were looking for a totally uplifting start to the Mike Locksley era, they could not have picked a better opponent.
If they were looking for any kind of competitive litmus test in their season opener on Saturday, they’ll have to wait until No. 22 Syracuse shows up at Maryland Stadium next week.
The Howard Bison might as well have been the Washington Generals, providing way more comic relief than real competition over the course of the Maryland’s unprecedented 79-0 walkover, but this day was more about the university’s football reset after the 2018 heatstroke-related death of Jordan McNair and the year of recrimination that followed.
The fact that the game ended with McNair’s No. 79 as the only number on the scoreboard was just a mystical coincidence.
“It was a great team victory today,’’ Locksley said. “We talked about, as a program, we only get one opportunity to make a great first impression and our guys, I thought collectively – offense, defense and special teams – they all contributed to the win.”
Though Terps could easily have broken the program’s 92-year-old single-game scoring record – 80 points against Washington College in 1927 — if they had not slowed their own roll at the end of the game, Locksley said it was not because he wanted to leave McNair’s number up.
“It was done out of respect for our opponent,’’ he said. “…I had no idea about 79 or 80. I just knew that I didn’t want us to score again.”
Locksley took over a program that has spent the past 15 months grieving and trying to make sense out of the McNair tragedy. Everything that happened on the football field last year took place in his shadow, and rightfully so, but the Terps are moving forward with the blessing of the McNair family and Saturday they unveiled a team they hope can hold its own in the tough East Division of the Big Ten.
“That’s how we have operated from the time we arrived as a staff and the new football family,’’ Locksley said. “Everything we talked about was maximizing ‘It.’ ‘It’ today was the game against Howard. We wanted to maximize every opportunity we had during the course of the game. We’ll celebrate it for 24 hours…and we’ll start putting together the game plan for Syracuse.
“For us, it’s always being in the moment. We don’t look back and think about things that happen in the past and we’re not looking to far forward. It’s about taking care of business right now and I thought we did a good job today.”
What such an outsized performance means going forward remains an open question, of course. The Terps figured to overwhelm the overmatched Bison, so the only outcome that might have allowed for any early conclusion-jumping about the quality of this year’s talent would have been a negative one.
It was obvious five minutes into the first quarter that nobody was going to crash this party. The Howard special teams unit all but teed up a string of quick Maryland touchdowns and the Terps reeled off a series of first-time-since moments on the way to a 56-point first half that was the highest-scoring half in the history of the program.
Might have been nice if there were more fans to witness it, but the crowd was sparse – no doubt the combined result of the unheralded opponent and the fact that this is one of the final big summer beach weekends.
If nothing else, the historic score-a-thon should build some anticipation for the arrival of next week’s top-25 opponent. The Orange are coming off their first 10-win season since 2001 and hoping to treat the Terps like a tuneup opponent for their matchup the following week against the top-ranked and defending national champion Clemson Tigers.
The Terps will be looking to defeat a ranked non-conference opponent for the third year in a row, though the two season-opening wins over Texas in 2017 and 2018 turned out to be isolated incidents in a pair of losing seasons.
Locksley is banking on improved quarterback depth to make the Terps offense more productive and transfer Josh Jackson certainly took advantage of his golden opportunity to make a great first impression with four touchdown passes in the first half.
Jackson threw for 245 yards in the first half and backup Tyrone Pigrome made his first appearance in the second quarter, throwing a 62-yard touchdown pass to Dontay Demus Jr., who also caught a 26-yard TD pass from Jackson.
Believe it or not, the Terps didn’t go out of their way to run up the score in the second half. They kept the ball on the ground and got a look at all of their available scholarship quarterbacks, as well as most of the depth chart at the other skills positions.
“I talked to (Howard coach Ron Prince) after the game,’’ Locksley said. “He understood that we weren’t trying to run up the score. We respect the game and we have respect for the way it should be played. But we also have to develop our team.
"We feel good about our [starters], but it was great to get so many of our young players some meaningful minutes, for us to be able to coach them up, because we’re going to need some of these guys as the year goes on.”