Michael Locksley's effort to rebuild the Maryland football program appeared to be gaining momentum in the early stage of his second year at the school.
Working their way around COVID-19 and an abbreviated Big Ten-only schedule, the Terrapins overcame an opening loss at Northwestern on Oct 25 to win at home against Minnesota and at Penn State. Then came back-to-back cancellations because of an outbreak of the virus at Maryland, a loss at Indiana, followed by the cancellation of last Saturday's game at Michigan because of COVID-19 problems among the Wolverines.
So, as they prepare the Saturday's matchup against Rutgers (2-5), the Terrapins (2-2) will be looking to complete this irregular regular season with a winning record and an unbeaten mark at home (so far they're 1-0).
“It means the world, especially for me, someone who’s trying to help Locks put this program back where it needs to be," sophomore defensive tackle Mosiah Nasili-Kite said.
The Terps have played only once since Nov. 7. It's tough to gauge progress from a small sampling of games, but this matchup against the Scarlet Knights should give Locksley an indication of where Maryland stands.
“It’s a great opportunity and a great measuring stick to see where we are, in kind of (season) 1.5," Locksley said.
Scouting Maryland has been difficult for Greg Schiano, who returned to Rutgers last December for a second stint as head coach.
“I mean, there’s four games. So that’s what you go off of," Schiano said. “We’ll have to adjust on the fly. That’s always the case. But it may be more the case this week, and we’re prepared for that.”
The Scarlet Knights have thus far managed to play a complete schedule, a rarity in the Big Ten. After opening with an upset win at Michigan State, Rutgers has since only defeated Purdue and is coming off a 23-7 loss to Penn State.
Rutgers senior linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi leads the nation with an average of 13.1 tackles per game, most by a Scarlet Knight through seven games since Brian Sheridan had 97 in 1997.
“He works really, really hard at being a great football player,” Schiano said. “Then on top of that, he’s a gifted guy with talent and he’s a very smart guy.”
HOT AND COLD
Maryland freshman quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa would have preferred to play more often in his first year with the Terrapins after transferring from Alabama, especially because his performance thus far can be best described as erratic.
He threw three interceptions at Northwestern, then tossed three touchdown passes against both Minnesota and Penn State before getting picked off three times at Indiana.
Tagolvailoa has showed promise, but Locksley wishes his young quarterback had more of a chance to play.
“Anytime you miss those opportunities, it slows down the growth," the coach said.
Hearing the same last name being called more than once on different sides of the ball isn’t surprising when it comes to Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have three sets of brothers on the roster: Bo and Max Melton, Aaron and Avery Young and Olakunle and Tunde Fatukasi.
Senior wide receiver Bo Melton is having a career year with 37 catches for 512 yards. Max is a true freshman defensive back who has made four starts.
Junior defensive back Avery Young has 41 tackles, two forced fumbles, a recovery and an interception. Younger brother Aaron is a sophomore running back who scored the go-ahead touchdown against Purdue.
Olakunle Fatukasi is a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which honors the nation’s top linebacker. Tunde is a freshman offensive lineman who has not seen action.
Maryland will honor seven seniors on Saturday, including running back Jake Funk, who is averaging 7.81 yards per carry in his return from a second ACL operation.
The seven seniors have provided leadership to a very young squad, which is almost as important as touchdowns to a rebuilding program.
“It’s a small group," Locksley said of his senior class. “We want to send these guys off as best we can."
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan contributed to this story.
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