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One Game In, Maryland Football Has Clarity Before Big Test Against Syracuse

September 4, 2019
Maryland head coach Michael Locksley believes college football teams make their biggest improvement between Week 1 and Week 2 of the season. Game results provide the kind of answers and data points that practices and scrimmages simply can't. Teams evolve during a season, of course, but those first 60 minutes set an important foundation.

"You never know who you are until you play a game," Locksley said Sept. 3. "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 what your fleas and Achilles' heels are, and they can exploit those things. Whereas when you play your first game, you can really find out, 'Are we who we think we are?' And then you make the adjustments off of those answers."

The Terps probably won't be able to improve on the result from last week -- a 79-0 win against Howard in which they led 623-68 in total yardage -- but Locksley maintains there is room for improvement in several areas. He said the Terps' offense made some mistakes trying to be too up-tempo, while the safeties can better communicate to set up the defense.

"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," Locksley said. "The key thing is to go in and get the corrections made for the fundamental mistakes or the mental errors that took place."

The big-picture questions were all answered positively. New quarterback Josh Jackson shook off a slow start to go 15-of-24 for 245 yards and four touchdowns, all in the first half. The defensive line, which lost four starters in the offseason, got consistent pressure on Howard en route to the team's eight-sack performance. Maryland even got strong outings from true freshmen Anthony Pecorella and Colton Spangler, the co-starting punters.

With Syracuse coming to town Sept. 7, it's helpful to have those big questions out of the way and an identity framework in place.

The Orange came in at No. 21 in the Sept. 3 AP poll, up one spot from the preseason rankings. Syracuse beat Liberty 24-0 Aug. 31, racking up eight sacks and allowing minus-4 rushing yards (a number inflated by all those sacks, yes, but still impressive). Several key pieces from last year's 10-3 team are gone, but there's plenty of returning talent on both sides of the ball.

Maryland fans remember Dino Babers from when his Bowling Green team routed Maryland, 48-27, in 2015. Hardly any current Terps played in that game, and only a handful have lined up against his Syracuse teams. Linebacker Shaq Smith, who played for Clemson last season, said Syracuse's tempo will present a challenge for a defense still getting comfortable with its new scheme and personnel.

"We had a couple times last week where we're looking to the sideline getting the call in, and we turn around and it was kind of simultaneously when the ball was being snapped," Smith said. "And those are the biggest things I've been harping on this week -- working on getting the calls in fast, having a check for when they do go tempo, what are we going to check to when we can't get a call in."

Perhaps the toughest task will be slowing down Syracuse's defensive line, which pressured Liberty early and often. Defensive ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman combined for 20 sacks and 29 TFLs last season and started 2019 in similar fashion, totaling 2.5 sacks and 3.5 TFLs against the Flames.

"We have to know where they are on the football field, we've gotta know their moves -- that's what film is for," senior guard Terrance Davis said. "They're speed rush guys, so we've gotta get off the ball. Just knowing their tendencies and stuff like that to get us ahead before the ball is snapped."

The game against Syracuse kicks off at noon on ESPN, and Maryland will have a chance to pick up a third straight win against a ranked September opponent. The Terps started as 4-point underdogs but are now 2-point favorites, per Oddshark.

But Locksley, taking a page out of Nick Saban's coachspeak playbook, won't talk about this game meaning any more than the last or the next. He's focusing on those little things, which could make the difference when it counts.

"I know it gets boring, and I say it all the time, but it's going to really start and end with us," Locksley said. "One of the mindsets we've tried to instill in our players is that the opponent really doesn't matter. It's about what we do. ... That's where all the energy gets placed for us as coaches and as a staff and our team, and we've really embraced that concept."

NOTEBOOK

DUNCAN TO START: Maryland's depth chart doesn't include any starter changes from last week, but Locksley said redshirt freshman Jaelyn Duncan will start at left tackle against Syracuse. Redshirt senior Ellis McKennie, who started last week, is still listed as a co-starter and should see significant time as well. Locksley called McKennie the offensive line's MVP of fall camp due to his versatility, and said it's likely he plays all five spots on the line at some point this season.

SEVEN PLAYERS HONORED: The Terps announced their Players of the Week Sept. 2, honoring a whopping seven players -- Jackson and Dontay Demus on offense; Oluwaseun Oluwatimi, Sam Okuayinonu and Tyler Baylor on defense, and Jake Funk and DJ Turner on special teams. Oluwatimi, Turner and Ayinde Eley will serve as captains for the Syracuse game.

THREE 2019 PICKS ON NFL ROSTERS: Twelve former Maryland players are on NFL 53-man rosters ahead of Week 1, including rookies Darnell Savage Jr. (Green Bay Packers), Ty Johnson (Detroit Lions) and Byron Cowart (New England Patriots). Josh Woods, who was on the Chicago Bears' practice squad last season, made the final cut this time around. Derwin Gray, a seventh-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers, was cut but earned a spot on the practice squad. Undrafted rookies Tre Watson, Damian Prince and Jesse Aniebonam all came up short, although the New Orleans Saints have reportedly brought Watson in for a tryout. Perhaps the biggest Maryland-related roster surprise was two-time Super Bowl champion Torrey Smith being let loose by the Carolina Panthers.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox