COLLEGE PARK — Donnell Brown had an honest assessment of Maryland football’s four-game losing streak.
“The only thing that we should be worried about is trying to get a win and get out of the gutter because right now, we’re in the gutter,” the junior defensive end said after Saturday’s 51-15 walloping by then-No. 11 Penn State at SECU Stadium. “We’re trying to get out of the gutter, but it’s hard, especially in this league.”
Brown’s sentiment doesn’t seem that far from the truth with the Terps (5-4, 2-4 Big Ten) spiraling downward after opening the season with five consecutive wins. And Saturday’s humbling loss to the Nittany Lions was another reminder of the chasm between Maryland and the upper tier of the Big Ten occupied by No. 3 Michigan (9-0, 6-0), No. 1 Ohio State (9-0, 6-0) and No. 10 Penn State (8-1, 5-1), all of whom are still in contention for the College Football Playoff.
Saturday’s performance was so off-putting that coach Mike Locksley revealed that while he and his assistants reviewed the game film, the players did not.
“We didn’t even watch the tape,” he said Tuesday afternoon during his weekly media availability. “Of the four losses we’ve had, this one is the one that’s not even worth watching the tape because we came nowhere close to the standard that we have come to expect for our program. That game showed us that we’re not there yet.”
That refrain has become more of a repeated occurrence as a berth in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis grew more distant with each deflating setback. A week after Locksley was reminded of his public comment at Big Ten media days in August that the program was ready to compete for a title, redshirt senior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was reminded of his position backing Locksley’s remark.
While acknowledging the unlikelihood of reaching that objective, Tagovailoa refused to back down from seeking more.
“If you’re not setting your expectations high, how will you know how you’re doing?” he said. “I feel like for us, we’re always going to reach [for] the high standards and hold ourselves to those things. Now that it’s out of reach, it’s not like the world is over. We still have a lot of opportunities to put good film on the field, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
One of those opportunities is grabbing that elusive sixth victory and becoming bowl-eligible for the third consecutive season. Locksley vowed that everyone associated with the program “ain’t quitting,” and redshirt freshman nose tackle Jordan Phillips said the locker room is resolute.
“At some point, if you play this game long enough, adversity’s going to hit, but the biggest thing that stands out to me about our program and about our coaches is, we’re not breaking, we’re not bending,” he said. “We’re just staying the course.”
On Monday, Nebraska coach Matt Rhule compared Tagovailoa favorably with the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and his own brother, Tua, who plays for the Miami Dolphins. The younger Tagovailoa thanked Rhule on Tuesday, but the pressure is on Tagovailoa to play as well as his NFL brethren.
During Maryland’s four-game losing streak, Tagovailoa has averaged 255.5 yards per game and thrown eight touchdown passes but has also committed five turnovers, including four interceptions. During the five-game winning streak, he averaged 292.8 yards and threw 13 touchdown passes against three interceptions.
“For me, it’s two hands on the ball in the pocket, keeping my feet set, staying on the ground and getting my energy from there,” he said. “It’s just things like that I’ve got to continue to work on and just keep working.”
Graduate student wide receiver Jeshaun Jones said Tagovailoa hasn’t buckled under the weight of any pressure.
“Of course we’ve gone through a tough streak these last couple weeks. Of course he wants to play better, and that’s just the competitor and leader in him,” Jones said. “I haven’t seen any wavering from him. I feel like, if anything, he’s started to work harder and do a little more and is bringing more guys along with him.”
Defending the run
Nebraska boasts the Big Ten’s most productive rushing offense, averaging 186.1 yards, while Maryland ranks sixth in run defense at 114.7 yards per game. Phillips’ take?
“Nothing worries me at all,” he said. “We’re going to approach them just like we would any other game.”
Bravado? Perhaps. But Brown and his defensive teammates would be wise to spend some time studying the Cornhuskers’ offense, which has produced more yards on the ground than through the air in eight of nine games. The Terps just surrendered 158 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to Penn State.
Locksley noted that the Nittany Lions got extra yardage after contact and said the defense has to improve its tackling.
“It’s no secret formula how you stop the run,” he said. “You have to have guys in their gaps that they’re responsible for being in. We’ve got to do a good job getting off of blocks, and we’ve got to do a great job of tackling.”
Maryland at Nebraska
Radio: 105.7 FM
Line: Maryland by 2
Outlook: Saturday’s game presents a pair of teams moving in opposite directions. Maryland’s four-game losing streak is well-documented and is the program’s longest since 2019 — Locksley’s first season as coach — when that squad ended that campaign with seven consecutive defeats. Although Nebraska lost, 20-17, at Michigan State on Saturday, the Cornhuskers had won all three of their games in October — something that seems utterly foreign to the Terps. Nebraska has won both meetings in this series, cruising by a combined 82-14 score. Both sides need just one more win in any of their last three games to secure an invitation to a bowl game, which the Cornhuskers have not experienced since 2014.
Key for Maryland: The Terps’ five big plays (catches of at least 20 yards and runs of at least 10 yards) in Saturday’s game tied a season low. Redshirt sophomore Roman Hemby (John Carroll), the team’s leading rusher, was limited to seven touches, and the top receiving duo of Jones and junior Kaden Prather combined for only seven receptions. Locksley said getting them the ball must be a priority.
“We have to make sure we’re keeping those players involved with how we call it and not just call plays because they are good schematic plays, but good schematic plays that get our best players the ball,” he said.
Key for Nebraska: One game might be an anomaly, but the Cornhuskers just surrendered seven sacks to Michigan State on Saturday, and they rank third-to-last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed with 24. Maryland is tied for third in the conference with Purdue with 27 sacks, and Rhule said giving redshirt sophomore Heinrich Haarberg time in the pocket is crucial.
“Our protection has to be better,” he said Monday. “We have to train harder. To me, it’s not necessarily always talent. It’s about bringing your technique and outworking the other team.”