“I think the only way after that game was just to go up,” said Tagovailoa, who threw as many interceptions as his team scored points in the 43-3 loss. “Our team had the right mind-set, despite how we were feeling.”
The next game, a Friday night matchup against Minnesota, forced the Terps to push their schedule up by a day and offered the team less time to ruminate over the loss. Tagovailoa, only a sophomore, said he never lost confidence and his teammates maintained their belief in him. Six days after the opener, Tagovailoa and the offense had another opportunity, a chance to prove the struggles in Evanston, Ill., were not indicative of the team’s ability. Against the Golden Gophers, Maryland piled up 675 yards and earned an overtime win.
The Terps sustained that progress a week later in their stunning win at Penn State, and now their ability will be tested in a difficult matchup Saturday against No. 3 Ohio State, a team Maryland has never beaten since joining the Big Ten in 2014. Five of those six losses have been decided by 21 points or more. But this year, the Terps will enter the game following consecutive conference wins and performances that sparked optimism.
After scoring only three points in the opener, the Terps tallied 45 against Minnesota and 35 at Penn State. Maryland managed only 207 yards against Northwestern but has eclipsed 400 in the past two outings. The recurring characteristic in those wins was Tagovailoa’s improvement. He has navigated pressure and avoided major mistakes. He showcased his competence as a mobile quarterback, scrambling for large gains. And Tagovailoa, who carries a last name that evokes comparison to his older brother, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua, has played with that poise after dealing with struggles in the disappointing opener.
“I'm not surprised and wasn't surprised by how he responded to the first game,” Coach Michael Locksley said. “For me, it was more of making sure that he didn't allow one game to lead to the second bad one. … No one can be a heavier critic on him than himself, and that's what I like as a coach in coaching Lia, is that I sometimes have to maybe go in from the Dr. Phil approach with him to make sure that he's not having the negative self talk with himself.”
Tagovailoa’s rebound against Minnesota featured 394 passing yards, the 10th-highest single-game total in school history. He accounted for five touchdowns — three passing and two rushing. Senior running back Jake Funk helped ignite the offense with 221 rushing yards, more than he had ever accumulated in an entire season. The Terps gained at least four yards on 44 of 66 offensive plays, including 10 plays of at least 20 yards.
“It’s executing everything that we needed to do,” junior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. said when asked about the dramatic jump from the first game to the second. “It was nothing different. We had the same game plan, our base plays going into [the game]. But we just added action.”
Freshman wide receiver Rakim Jarrett had a breakout game at Penn State with 144 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He’s surrounded by other receivers who can generate similar performances. The Terps have long had confidence in the team’s talent at wide receiver, but Tagovailoa has added the consistency at quarterback needed for them to thrive.
The Terrapins’ offensive line retained three starters from last season — Jaelyn Duncan, Johnny Jordan and Marcus Minor. Maryland brought in Johari Branch, a junior college transfer, and Spencer Anderson, a sophomore who appeared in 11 games last season, transitioned to a starting role.
Before the season, Locksley said he took comfort in the development of the starters, but “my concern is we still don’t have the depth that you’re looking for because that’s the one position that you can’t rush the growth.” A handful of newcomers are still part of the two-deep, so injuries could quickly bring inexperience to the starting unit.
The group struggled in 2019 and allowed 38 sacks, the most per game in the Big Ten. But through three games, the offensive line has played well. The experience that Duncan, a redshirt sophomore, and Anderson gained in 2019 has benefited them this season. Jordan anchors the group as a senior leader at center.
So far this year, the offensive linemen have given Tagovailoa time in the pocket and enabled him to maneuver out of tricky situations. Locksley recently called the offensive line “probably the most improved group on our team.” The Terps allowed two sacks against Northwestern and only one during the win over Minnesota. Penn State’s defense sacked Tagovailoa three times, but two of those came when Maryland already led by 28 points.
“I always tell them we’re nothing without the O-linemen,” Tagovailoa said. “They’ve been playing their hearts out, whether it’s pass-blocking, run-blocking, so we’re all behind them. . . . They’ve been playing tremendous. So as long as they keep that up, we’ll be good.”
Maryland’s coaching staff has experienced significant upheaval in recent years, with three head coaches and two interim coaches since the 2015 season. The offensive line group has experienced more coaching changes than any other position. The Terps had a different offensive line coach each season from 2015 to 2019. John Reagan, now in his second year as the leader of that group, offers consistency for those players, who have never had the same position coach in back-to-back seasons at Maryland. In that short time, Reagan has guided the group through an impressive turnaround.
Despite the win at Penn State, Locksley was disappointed in how his team finished. He said the offense is not yet “mature enough” to slow the tempo late in a game in an effort to run out the clock. The Terps only generated 70 yards of offense in the second half, and after starting the game 9 for 11 on third down, Maryland failed to convert its final five attempts.
But Maryland’s offense excelled in the first half, and the Terps surged ahead of a team they had only beaten twice in program history. They proved that the outburst of production against Minnesota wasn’t an anomaly and that it’s instead something this team can strive to re-create in games to come.
“The goal for us … is to find a way to put this formula together each and every week consistently,” Locksley said. “And that’s to me the challenge when you have a young team like we have.”