Tagovailoa excels at Rutgers, helping grant Maryland football bowl eligibility

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

Maryland had something massive to play for and, for the first time in weeks, there was a considerable chance to take the win.  

The Terps had met their much-anticipated equal in Rutgers. And with a lively performance from quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, they also nabbed their long-awaited sixth victory and bowl game berth for the first time since 2016 on a, 40-16 scoreline.

“​​I came here to build a program that our former players [and] that all of our fans could be really, really proud of,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “This is just one step. We talked about taking the next step, and that’s being bowl eligible. Then the next step for us is to build upon what we’ve established — the culture, the identity.”

The season-extending win featured some of the dominance Maryland had not been familiar with since the season began. The Terps’ offense was humming, and the results were clear on the scoreboard, where Maryland led the entire game.

Maryland quickly took heed of its unique opportunity and scored two touchdowns to open the contest. Tagovailoa was an improved version of the quarterback who struggled on senior day. He spotted open teammates, maintained a superb completion percentage and didn’t turn the ball over. 

It allowed him to account for all of Maryland’s first half points, throw for well over 200 yards and enter the first half break with a 20-2 lead. While on his way to another efficient individual performance, he managed to break a coveted record. 

An 18-yard strike to Rakim Jarrett, who benefited greatly from Tagovailoa’s outing, with seven catches for 111 yards, put the redshirt sophomore past former Terp quarterback Scott Milanovich (3,499 yards) for the most passing yards in a single season. Jarrett’s outstretched hands corralled a teardrop accurate pass in a crowded corner that exemplified Tagovailoa’s afternoon. 

But the offense, as has been the case all season, came in ebbs and flows. The Terps mustered just 24 yards of total offense after Maryland’s second touchdown ended with a blocked and returned PAT. The drought ended with Tagovailoa’s first rushing touchdown, but briefly continued when Maryland stalled in the red zone just before the end of the second quarter. 

Jarrett grabbed Tagovailoa’s record-breaking ball and set Maryland at the one yard line, but the Terps lost substantial yardage through poorly executed plays. After a failed goal-line run,  Tagovailoa was sacked on the following play and fumbled on the next. Upon recovering the fumble, with less than 10 seconds to go, the Terps special teams unit rushed onto the turf only to miss the field goal. 

Tagovailoa and the offense readjusted immediately after the halftime break. The Scarlet Knights began registering their first touchdowns of the afternoon, but the Terps continued to protect their double-digit lead with scores of their own — rapidly making their way to a four possession lead.

“One thing that we did a good job today as players, and coaches helped as well, was just getting back to neutral,” receiver Brian Cobbs said. “We’d have a big drive, have a score or whatever it’s 0-0. Reset the scoreboard in your head … and just keep it competitive.”

In the second half, Tagovailoa threw for his third touchdown, eclipsed 300 yards (for his seventh 300-yard game of the season) and began putting the finishing touches on his masterful afternoon. 

Tagovailoa ended with 21-30 completion, four total touchdowns, 312 yards and zero turnovers. 

Against a defense touted for its ability to stop teams on third down, Tagovailoa helped Maryland thrive in third down situations (9-for-15 conversions). Visiting a team that maintains a defensive identity, Tagovailoa darted his way up and down the field and made few mistakes, and maintained 70% completion and kept possession, opening up the running game. Tayon Fleet-Davis took the bulk of the backfield touches and rushed for a career best, 152 yard, two touchdown outing. 

“[I’m] really proud of the guys, really, really proud of their effort and looking forward to developing our team with this bowl opportunity that we have,” Locksley said.