One of Mike Locksley’s favorite expressions is that a college football team makes the biggest improvement from its first game to its second. Regardless of the opponent or the outcome, the first-year Maryland coach believes his Terps can build on Saturday’s season-opening 79-0 win over Howard.
Locksley has a better handle now on what kind of team he has, and not because of the outcome.
“You never know who you are until you until you play a game,” Locksley said during his weekly news conference Tuesday. “You can scrimmage all day long and the familiarity that goes along with scrimmaging makes it really difficult because your defense knows your weaknesses.
“They know where your fleas and Achilles heels are. They can exploit those things. Whereas, when you play your first game, you can really find out, ‘Are we really who we think we are?’ and then then you make the adjustments off of those answers.”
Exactly what kind of team Locksley has — and might become this season — could be a little easier to discern come Saturday, when the Terps go from being overwhelming favorites throttling a Football Championship Subdivision team to slight favorites (after being opening-line underdogs) against No. 21 Syracuse (1-0) at Maryland Stadium.
Given the opponent — a team many have predicted will be the ACC’s second-best team behind national champion Clemson — the Terps will have to clean up whatever mistakes Locksley and his staff found in watching tape to back up what was the second-biggest blowout in school history.
“I think the biggest thing from Game 1 to Game 2 on the offensive side of the board [is] our tempo," Locksley said. "We tried to play fast, a couple of times we got ourselves into trouble, we had a couple of penalties. … On the defensive side of the ball, the biggest issue that came out of the game for us was communication.”
Locksley acknowledged that a team that has more often been on the painful end of one-sided losses, particularly while playing in the Big Ten East, can be helped by the way it performed in what was the largest margin of victory by an FBS team in Week 1.
“We were also maybe able to gain a little bit of confidence in understanding in how we practice and how we do things,” said Locksley, whose Terps gave up the fewest yards (68), tied Penn State for the most points and was tied for seventh in total yards (623) after the first full week of games.
That Locksley was able to rest most of his starters in the second half — including graduate transfer Josh Jackson, who threw four touchdown passes in his much-anticipated debut — enabled him to use nearly every healthy player available, including all four of his quarterbacks.
“We saw a lot of good things on the film, but we also found quite a few things that we can do to improve, both mentally and then some of the fundamental things that we were able to pick up with some of the young players that had opportunities to come in and play,” Locksley said.
Among those who made an impact were offensive tackle Jaelyn Duncan, who played well enough against Howard to earn his first start Saturday against Syracuse; and true freshman safety Nick Cross, whose three tackles included taking down punter Isaiah Moore for a 14-yard loss to set up a touchdown.
Graduate transfer linebacker Shaq Smith, who played in his share of blowout wins during his two seasons at Clemson, said the celebration after Saturday’s win was short-lived, as it should be. It’s not about trying to judge how well the Terps played against the Bison, but how quickly they can refocus on the Orange.
“It’s all about restarting,” Smith said Tuesday. "No matter how big a margin we won by, there’s always room for improvement. You see the things you need to work on, find the weaknesses that your [next] opponent may see and you attack those things and get ready for the next week.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise from Saturday’s game wasn’t that the offense put up 56 points by halftime — the most ever by a Maryland team in any half — but that the defense seemed relentless throughout. The Terps had eight sacks, including five on Caylin Newton, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference preseason Player of the Year.
“When we first got together [for preseason practice], the chemistry we have on defense, the type of guys that we have, we have a chance to be very special,” said Smith, who had one sack among his three tackles. “It’s all dependent on us. If we put our minds to it, we can do anything we want to as a defense.”
The former Calvert Hall and St. Frances star agreed with Locksley’s assessment of where the defense needed to improve to beat Syracuse, which finished ranked 11th nationally in points per game last season (40.2) but struggled to find a rhythm in Saturday’s season-opening 24-0 win against Liberty.
“Once we get our communication down and talk through plays, before plays, after plays, and even on the sideline, we’ll be that much better and we’ll be able to take that next step as a defense,” Smith said.
Jackson, who finished 15 of 24 for 245 yards in a little less than a half, said that, aside from missing on his first three passes and misfiring on a deep throw to DJ Turner rather than dumping it off on a third-and-5, he was satisfied with his performance.
“There was a couple of throws I didn’t like, but I felt decent for the first game in awhile,” said Jackson, who played for the first time since breaking his leg early last season at Virginia Tech. “I feel good.”
Locksley said that no matter how his first game back at Maryland is perceived, he won’t look back at what the scoreboard read when he and his team left the field Saturday.
“You treat good wins like you do good losses,” he said. "There’s always the game within the game. We focus on that. Most of the questions are about the results. We’re more about the process of how we practice, how we prepare, how we execute each and every play.
“The scoreboard to us, we try not to let that even come into play when we game plan, when we correct from games when we win or when we lose. The key thing is to go in and get the corrections made for the fundamental mistakes or the mental errors that took place.”