The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taulia Tagovailoa’s first start for Maryland is a disaster as Northwestern dominates

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is sacked by Northwestern's Cameron Ruiz on Saturday. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

EVANSTON, Ill. — After a disappointing campaign in Coach Michael Locksley’s first season as Maryland’s head coach, the Terrapins’ football program needed solutions. Improvement from last season required experience, talent and consistency. And the quarterback position has an outsize chance of sparking that change and elevating a program, so the Terps brought in Taulia Tagovailoa, a transfer from Alabama. Tagovailoa arrived as an unproven college quarterback praised for his potential, and maybe some day, perhaps even this season, he will give Maryland that burst of optimism. But on Saturday, he didn’t.

The Terps suffered a 43-3 defeat against the Northwestern Wildcats to open the season, and they return to College Park with more problems to solve. Tagovailoa’s performance — 14-for-25 passing for 94 yards with three interceptions — will define the loss even though the Terps’ offense wasn’t alone in its struggles.

“I feel like today I made a lot of mistakes that cost us the game,” Tagovailoa said.

Tagovailoa led the offense, which had trouble all evening. But the defense played poorly, too. Facing an opponent that ranked near the bottom of the country in multiple offensive categories last season, Maryland’s porous defense watched Northwestern’s revamped unit plow down the field and rack up points with ease.

The game was “not what any of us expected,” Locksley said. “Enough blame to go around offensively, defensively, special teams, coaches all included. We all have to do better.”

Tagovailoa earned the starting nod for the Terps, and the game’s opening drive proved why. The sophomore was decisive and led his team through a methodical, pass-heavy drive. The only downside was that it ended in a field goal. Those early plays are scripted, and Tagovailoa said he felt “very comfortable and confident.”

After that glimmer of hope, which stood in contrast to Maryland’s struggles at quarterback in recent years, the offense appeared lost. On his first interception, Tagovailoa overthrew freshman receiver Rakim Jarrett. On the next two, Tagovailoa threw into double coverage.

“Obviously this is still his first career start in college,” Locksley said. “And so he made some mistakes.”

Maryland finished with 207 offensive yards, and 56 of those came during the first drive, when Tagovailoa completed 6 of 7 passes and senior running back Jake Funk produced a 24-yard run. Another 76 yards came on the final drive of the game with Northwestern 40 points ahead.

The Terps notched only 14 first downs, and even though the offensive line didn’t appear particularly worrisome, the Northwestern defense sacked Tagovailoa twice. The game had slipped out of reach by the second quarter, and Locksley’s offense could not muster anything more than those early three points.

“I just never felt like after the first drive that we had any rhythm on offense,” Locksley said. “And to me, it’s all about rhythm, and we’re one of those teams that when we can play with tempo and we can get up and go, we tend to be able to string plays together.”

But equally jarring for the Terps was how they allowed Northwestern’s offense to cruise through the game with a balanced attack. The Wildcats, who ranked 126th in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision last season in points per game, generated 537 yards of total offense led by their transfer quarterback, Peyton Ramsey from Indiana, and a new coordinator. Ramsey threw for 212 yards, guiding the Wildcats to their largest margin of victory in a Big Ten game since 1970.

The run game added another 325 yards, and the Northwestern offense converted all three of its fourth-down attempts. Maryland’s defense finished the game with few positive moments, apart from some individual performances, particularly linebacker Chance Campbell, who played well and led the team with 14 total tackles.

As Northwestern continued to score, Locksley remained committed to Tagovailoa, who showed some improvement during the second half. But those few positive plays were often met with mistakes and halted drives.

“He’s our quarterback,” Locksley said. “He earned the right to be our starting quarterback. Did the things that we thought would give us the best chance to win. None of us, coaches included, played a good game or had a great game — offensively, defensively, special teams. With the quarterback, of course he takes the brunt of the criticism, especially when you turn it over.”

Redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre took control of the offense late in the fourth quarter, guiding the team on the final drive that ended six yards from the end zone as time expired.

Maryland had won its previous 10 season openers, but the Wildcats snapped that streak with their dominating performance.

After losing their top two running backs from last season, the Terps couldn’t assemble much of a running game while Tagovailoa struggled. The backs combined for only 17 carries, and Funk led the group with 35 yards. Senior Tayon Fleet-Davis, who’s listed as the second-string running back on the depth chart, did not travel for reasons still stemming from last season when he was charged with driving a vehicle while impaired.

Maryland is young, with more than 50 new players on the roster. Many played against Northwestern. Heading into this season, Locksley’s two scholarship quarterbacks had a combined 15 pass attempts at the college level. And the trouble in Evanston doesn’t diminish potential — not of Tagovailoa or of the others. But the rebuild of a program requires clear steps forward, and against Northwestern, the Terrapins remained stuck in the doldrums of the Big Ten’s bottom tier.

What you need to read about college football

Scores | Rankings | Standings | Stats

Conference shakeup: The ground beneath college sports took its most disfiguring shake to date as Southern California and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.

Jerry Brewer: As college sports change, coaches must stop whining and amplify new voices.

Name, image and likeness: As NIL money keeps rising for players, coaches like Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban are lobbing accusations at each other while most Americans are still enjoying college sports, a Post-UMD poll finds. The NCAA has issued guidelines for schools, but boosters like Miami’s John Ruiz aren’t worried.

USC’s fever dream: At the Trojans’ spring game, minds long addled with college football might struggle to remember where all of the players and coaches used to be.

Season wrap-up: College football can’t ruin the magic of college football, no matter how hard it tries.

Barry Svrluga: Kirby Smart finally vanquished Nick Saban, and now college football feels different.

John Feinstein: Don’t underestimate Deion Sanders — and don’t take your eyes off him.