MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

What an ugly football game, yet what a thing of beauty for the Maryland football Terrapins, as they raised the mayonnaise in triumph with a 16-12 Duke’s Mayo Bowl victory over our old friends from North Carolina State Saturday afternoon in Charlotte.

It was a true rock fight between the old rivals from the Atlantic Coast Conference and it was Maryland’s defense that won the day over the top-20 defense of the No. 23 Wolfpack to send the Terps to their second straight bowl victory for the first time in 20 years and an eight-win season for the first time since 2010.

“The last four years we’ve talked about taking the next step,” said Maryland head coach Michael Locksley. “The next step for us is to start competing for Big Ten championships. Some people out there laugh and think it’s funny, but you take a Terp for granted, I promise we’ll make you pay.”

In the end of a very tense and frustrating afternoon offensively speaking in which there was just one touchdown scored, it was senior cornerback Jakorian Bennett who made N.C. State pay with the game-winning interception to earn game MVP honors.

Bennett, who led the nation in passes defended this season, is one of the many players Locksley has brought to College Park who has aspirations to play in the NFL. Yet unlike so many seniors around the nation with such aspirations, including at Maryland, Bennett played in his team’s bowl game that didn’t have a national title riding on it which, in Locksley’s scheme, was actually the starting point for next season when Bennett will likely be in the NFL rather than College Park.

As Bennett was not the only senior who played, it’s just an indication of the respect and the belief Maryland’s players have in Locksley. Of course, not all of the faces in the Terps lineup were familiar ones. Rather, they were younger faces.

When the bowl match-up was announced, Maryland opened as a 3-point favorite to beat N.C. State. By the time the game started, though, the Terps were anywhere from a 1.5 to 2.5-point underdog because 14 players from the roster opted not to play to prepare for the NFL Draft or to enter the transfer portal, including their top three wide receivers who committed to the draft, and one of their tight ends, who chose Alabama over Ohio State in the transfer portal, which should give you a pretty good indication of the type of player Locksley is successfully recruiting.

Conversely, all of N.C. State’s NFL prospects played in the game.

This was a good bowl victory for Maryland because State was a very good football team and about as good defensively as the Terps have seen this season. And it showed, as quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa struggled often and the running game couldn’t get on track.

However, aside from the dominant play of the Terps defense, the biggest positive was the play of Maryland’s talented young receivers. Sophomore Tai Felton caught four passes for 69 yards and true freshman Octavian Smith caught three for 34 yards, including the game’s only touchdown, and returned a kick for 41 yards. Felton is said to be Maryland’s fastest player, while Smith has potential to be a big-time receiver.

Amidst the ugliness that was the actual game, it was an absolutely great day to be a Terp. In four seasons – three full seasons – as the Maryland head coach, Locksley’s teams have had two winning seasons, two straight bowl victories and a progression of three wins in the first season, seven wins in the next full season and now eight wins in the third full season.

Maryland football continues to make progress, taking at least a step forward in the past four years, and it’s what Locksley said the program would do when he took over amidst the ruins of D.J. Durkin.

No question that winning the Pinstripe Bowl, then winning the Duke’s Mayo Bowl the following year doesn’t seem like much to the college football programs we see playing every year in the bright lights. And, as late as the Ralph Friedgen years, it wasn’t a big deal in College Park. But maybe it should have been a bigger deal than it was made to be.

Had the entitled Maryland boosters and alumni, who didn’t believe the seven bowls in 10 years Friedgen took the Terps to was anything to write home about, not run the successful head coach out of town on a rail, Maryland football would have likely avoided the giant mess created by hiring Randy “From Good to Great” Edsall and then Durkin, who was an even bigger disaster.

What Maryland football is doing these days is a very big deal, and those same boosters and alumni would have to be even more stupid than they showed themselves to be when they pulled the rug out from something that was pretty darn good over a decade ago not to see it.

Maryland football is just going to get better and better.

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