MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Maryland football begins its final big push to rediscover its relevance this Saturday in Happy Valley, State College, Pa., a place that, since the moment I saw the 1998 movie, I have referred to as Pleasantville. Sorry, I just find it to be a very weird place, but, of course, nobody asked.

The Penn State Nittany Lions, though, are not weird; they are an outstanding football team, ranked No. 14 in the country at 7-2 and playing for a bigger and more prestigious bowl game themselves. The Lions are coached by James Franklin. You remember him. He is the former “head coach in waiting” at Maryland in the way-back during the days of Chairman Yow spending much of her time trying to run Ralph Friedgen and Gary Williams off campus, which made sense since both were universally loved in College Park and were two of the best coaches Maryland has ever had.

Oh, she was a charmer, that one …

As it turned out, Franklin didn’t bother to wait and left Maryland to do a great job as the head coach at Vanderbilt, before landing the prestigious Penn State job, where he has done very well. So it’s safe to say the guy has done alright for himself. Plus, he had the integrity to cut loose the gifted but ineligible walk-on quarterback Chad Powers, so that speaks very well of him as well.

Anyway, Penn State is likely one of the three most talented teams the Terps, 6-3 and bowl eligible, will play this season. After Saturday’s game, home games will follow with the most talented team they’ll face all year, No. 2-ranked Ohio State, and then with Rutgers.

In this space last week, it was suggested that with four games left Maryland had a good chance to win two of them, and a longshot chance to win three. Last week’s 23-10 loss at Wisconsin was one of those games, and it wasn’t the longshot.

The loss to Wisconsin was a nightmare for Maryland on a cold, windy and ugly day in Camp Randall Stadium. A rusty, gun-shy and rattled Taulia Tagovailoa, making his return from an injury, looked as though he had never played quarterback before, seemingly ignoring pre-snap reads whenever the Badgers brought pressure, which was often, and being the victim of one of the poorest performances of the season by the Maryland offensive line.

It didn’t appear the Terps had a game plan, which makes one wonder what they were doing through the bye week, and they were again riddled by poor in-game decisions, beginning with not punting on fourth down on their initial visit just inside Wisconsin territory.

It was clear from the beginning that because of the dreadful weather and wind, it was going to be a field-position game; but the Terps gave the Badgers a big advantage they would keep the entire game by failing miserably on that failed fourth-down attempt and helping Wisconsin flip the field position for the rest of the game.

As we have pointed out here many times, head coach Michael Locksley has done a fabulous job in building this program back up and he justifiably has the support of Maryland fans. But Maryland fans’ excitement is too often tempered by periods of frustration because Locksley’s teams, while very exciting and talented, are undisciplined and often lack focus.

Saturday in Wisconsin was one of those games, which means this program still has a long way to go.

As bad as Maryland played last week, the Wisconsin game was still winnable into the third quarter and early fourth. But if they play anywhere near that way this week, forget it. It’s going to be a long, humiliating day, because that is how good Penn State is.

In fact, Maryland could even play a near-perfect game and still come out of Pleasantville a double-digit loser.

(And, yes, by the way, we didn’t forget: Of course there were two pass interference calls on Maryland last Saturday that even the Big Ten Network analyst felt were ridiculous and cost the Terps a combined six points, Did I hear somebody say they missed ACC officiating? No, nothing can be that bad, but Big Ten officiating has been consistently terrible and often otherworldly, as in “Where did that call come from?” Extremely unfortunate and frustrating.)

What is also unfortunate and very frustrating, despite so much potential going on and taking place in College Park these days, there is also too little discipline, and it’s been this way from the beginning.

With the legitimate blue-chip talent Locksley has brought in and will continue to bring in, it will be an enormous lost opportunity if he and his staff are unable to harness it and lead it away from the mindless and self-destructive habits his teams have not yet been able to eliminate.

If history has taught us anything it’s that lost opportunities have a way of staying lost a lot longer at Maryland, particularly in football, than they do at other places.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT