Maryland football has not beaten a ranked Big Ten team since joining the conference nine years ago. In coach Michael Locksley’s five seasons, the Terps have lost to Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State 11 times in 12 games by an average of 32.9 points.

By those measures, Maryland is not close to the level of the conference’s perennially elite teams. But Locksley sees a different outlook. He disagrees that the gap between his team and the top of the conference is widening. He thinks it’s shrinking.

“I don’t think they’re 51-15 better than us,” he said after the Terps’ 36-point drubbing from the Nittany Lions on Saturday. “I don’t think we played to our potential.”

Closing that gap requires a collective effort that Maryland has rarely displayed in Locksley’s tenure. That has led to lopsided results in its biggest matchups. Those scores show a hefty distance that still separates where Maryland is stuck, a team that can’t break through, and where it wants to be, a program that can compete for titles.

“We’re not as far away as maybe some people may think,” Locksley said.

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Five weeks ago, Maryland went into halftime against the Buckeyes tied at 10 in what was perhaps the last promising moment of this spiraling season. A second-half collapse led to a 20-point loss, which gave way to two more defeats against teams outside of the Big Ten’s elite. The game started a losing streak the Terps have yet to break out of.

Locksley called Saturday’s defeat to Penn State “a competitive game up until the third quarter.” The Nittany Lions outscored Maryland 30-8 after halftime. Penn State is responsible for the Terps’ only two shutouts of the Locksley era — a 30-0 defeat last year and a 59-0 embarrassment at home in 2019.

A complete effort has eluded Maryland under Locksley. In every battle with the conference’s top teams, Maryland has either created a steep deficit early that proved impossible to overcome or fallen apart after a promising start. That offers a combination of hope and frustration for a team starving for a signature win.

“We’re playing spurts of good football,” Locksley said.

The coach has not found an answer to that challenge as his fifth season on the job winds down. Maryland is 0-33 against ranked Big Ten teams since it joined the conference in 2014.

[Maryland football drops fourth straight game in demoralizing 51-15 loss to Penn State]

Since Locksley took over in 2019, the Terps are 3-13 in November and have not finished with a winning record in conference play. Maryland has also not finished higher than fourth place in the Big Ten East standings during that time.

One day, Locksley hopes to join the ranks of elite Big Ten programs. He thought the Terps were on their way to that level in August. Now, as Maryland’s chance of building on last year’s eight-win season dwindles, Locksley acknowledged his goal is still too far out of reach.

Nine years after joining the conference and five years after hiring a new coach, Maryland is still trying to find itself. The Terps haven’t closed the gap. And in a top-heavy league that is only getting stronger, they may be running out of time.

“Everyone has to do a little bit better, just a little bit better,” Locksley said. “A little bit better at how we focus to prepare. A little bit better at how we’re recovering to get our bodies right to play … As a coach, putting a little more time into … the plan that we put together. … That’s what it’s gonna take.”