Michael Locksley at Maryland Football's media day in 2019 Credit: Kelyn Soong

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On Wednesday afternoon, early in the second quarter of the Pinstripe Bowl, Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa executed one of the most thrilling plays of the day. Throwing out of the shotgun, Tagovailoa danced three steps backward, two steps forward, and heaved a home run pass down the Yankee Stadium field, the ball kissing the gray late-December sky.

It landed in the hands of wide receiver Darryl Jones, who outran the pack of Virginia Tech defenders 25 yards to the end zone. The 70-yard touchdown provided the exclamation point in Maryland’s 54-10 shellacking of Virginia Tech, but the swiftness with which the play was executed belied the journey coach Michael Locksley’s team took to get there.

The victory marked the Terps’ first bowl win since 2010, and helped to secure Maryland’s first winning record (7-6) since 2014. It was a marquee win for Locksley, who was hired just over three years ago to resurrect the program from the abyss of the D.J. Durkin era.

“We’ve come a long way as a program since 2019,” Locksley said after the game. “It’s been a lot of hard work. Hasn’t been easy. These guys have bought into what you have to do to have winning football. The culturethe way you have to work, the habits and behaviors you got to create.”

It’s standard practice for incoming coaches to speak about rebuilding programs’ “culture” in their vision, but for Locksley and Maryland the sentiment carries even more weight. Durkin, Locksley’s predecessor, was fired Oct. 31, 2018 after the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair from a heat stroke suffered in practice, and amid reports of a “toxic” culture around the team under Durkin. 

Locksley, the native son from D.C., was brought on to restore a sense of pride to the program but also to win. Maryland has a rich tradition in women’s and men’s basketball, but football makes athletic departments money in the modern era. In June, Maryland unveiled the Jones-Hill House, the state-of-the-art football facility with a $149.3 million price tag designed to help the Terps compete in the top-heavy Big Ten. Formerly known as Cole Field House, the home of Maryland’s basketball teams, the facility was named in honor of Billy Jones and Darryl Hill, the first Black men to integrate basketball and football at Maryland, respectively.

The investment might take years to bear fruit, though Wednesday marked an important first step in the process. The Terps dominated the Hokies, outgaining them 481-259 yards and outplaying them in every facet of the game.

Tagovailoa, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, finished 20-of-24 passing for 265 yards and two touchdowns without an interception to win MVP honors. He was brilliant, much like the Terps’ defense, which recorded two sacks, five tackles for loss, and a fumble that was forced by defensive back Nick Cross and recovered by defensive lineman Greg Rose for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Maryland kicked off the scoring when defensive back Tarheeb Still returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown three minutes into the contest and never looked back. 

“Coming into this game, we knew what was at stake,” Tagovailoa said. “It means a lot for our Maryland family, our fans. They’ve been waiting a long time for us to have a winning season and make bowl games and win a lot of games. I know it’s hard to stay patient.”

Locksley heaped praise on Tagovailoa. 

“I feel like we’ve got one of the best quarterbacks in the league, if not the country,” Locksley said. “As I said before, we wouldn’t be in this situation that we’re in with the winning season if it wasn’t for Taulia. Now, obviously he is not the finished product, and I think you’ll continue to see him get better.”

The Terps, however, have more work to do before they can earn back the trust of their long-suffering fan base. The Pinstripe Bowl is a lower-tier postseason affair dressed up in New York City glitz, and Maryland’s opponent was hardly representative of college football’s upper crust. The Hokies entered the contest in a tailspin and were led by interim coach J.C. Price, who was tapped after the team fired Justin Fuente with two games remaining in the regular season. Virginia Tech finished 12th in the ACC in total offense (361.9 yards per game). 

The Hokies’ ineptitude hardly seemed to bother the Maryland fans that made up about half of the 29,653 at Yankee Stadium, dressed in Terps black, red, and gold, the same colors with which the Empire State Building was lit up the evening before the game. New York is home to one of the university’s most robust alumni networks, and as Wednesday’s game barreled toward the end, and more and more Virginia Tech fans filtered for the exits, it felt like something of a homecoming for Locksley’s team.

“They played a hell of a game,” Price said. 

Not long after the final whistle sounded, Maryland players sprinted to the left-field foul pole, where the Terps cheerleaders had been brandishing flags bearing the individual letters of the school’s name. In a fit of glee, eight players grabbed one flag each and waved the letters from side to side, creating a makeshift M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D cheer routine that made up for what it lacked in coordination with enthusiasm. 

Locksley, whose public face normally sits in a frown, looked serene atop a makeshift stage accepting the George M. Steinbrenner III Trophy and smiled as Tagovailoa accepted MVP honors. He held the trophy high and turned to the Terps fans in attendance, offering both a rally cry and a call to action. “The best,” said Locksley, who earned an $85,000 bonus for the bowl victory, “is ahead.”