Locksley’s rebuilding project in College Park depended on finding talented new players to fill the roster, and now those additions have experience and confidence. Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa might be the most important of the bunch, and he’s a prime example of how this crew’s development led to a 30-24 win Saturday over the visiting Mountaineers — and why there’s promise for the rest of the 2021 campaign.
Tagovailoa threw for 332 yards, completing 26 of his 36 passes for three touchdowns. The junior, in his second season as Maryland’s starter, made no major mistakes. When the Terrapins needed Tagovailoa to lead the offense on a scoring drive in the fourth quarter, he did so with the poise of a veteran, finding sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett on third down for a 60-yard touchdown. That pushed the Terps two scores ahead of West Virginia, which trimmed the margin with a field goal but never climbed closer.
“I’ve got to give the kids credit in that locker room,” Locksley said. “They hung in there. They believed. They wanted it more.”
The Terps’ defense forced four turnovers, none bigger than the late-game interception from Jakorian Bennett — a player who, like Tagovailoa, joined Locksley’s program as a transfer before last season. Bennett picked off a pass from West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege in the end zone, setting up Tagovailoa’s critical touchdown drive.
In the past, Locksley said, his teams have struggled to “manage and handle adversity” within games. But on Saturday, the Terrapins thrived during these key moments, navigating what Locksley described as “the ebb and flow of a hard-fought game.”
This opener wasn’t four quarters of offensive excellence from Tagovailoa and his unit. The group stalled for extended stretches and didn’t get a ton of support from the running game early on. But Jarrett and senior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. ensured that Maryland would have a threatening passing attack. Demus finished with 133 receiving yards, and Jarrett had 122, evidence that they will be the team’s dominant one-two receiving punch throughout the season.
Tagovailoa “was the same throughout the whole game — poised, calm, our leader,” Jarrett said. Both players have taken strides in their second season here in College Park, but Jarrett said: “I’ve seen the jump all throughout the offseason. Today’s just you guys seeing it.”
Tagovailoa connected with Demus for a 66-yard touchdown in the first quarter, a highlight in the team’s strong offensive start. After the Terps scored on their first three drives, the offense began to sputter and failed to capitalize on West Virginia’s mistakes. Four consecutive drives yielded just 13 offensive yards, and only the Mountaineers’ own struggles kept them from climbing further ahead.
Finally, the Terrapins and Tagovailoa found a spark. With two minutes to assemble one final drive of the first half, Tagovailoa connected with Demus for consecutive competitions of 35 and 13 yards. Tayon Fleet-Davis powered through the West Virginia defense on three straight rushes to bring Maryland’s offense to the 2-yard line. But the Terps couldn’t cap that string of positive plays with a touchdown. Kicker Joseph Petrino settled for a short field goal, and Maryland headed to halftime trailing 21-20.
The Maryland defense had an inconsistent start to the game when the Mountaineers moved down the field with ease on their first touchdown drive but were then pushed into a third-and-long situation they couldn’t convert after back-to-back sacks from Tarheeb Still and Deshawn Holt. After Tagovailoa’s touchdown pass to Chigoziem Okonkwo in the first quarter, the Terps gave up a 98-yard kickoff return to Winston Wright Jr. West Virginia’s Leddie Brown, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and scored three touchdowns Saturday against Maryland, punched into the end zone on the next play.
As the Terrapins’ offense slowed, the defense’s strong effort in critical moments after the halftime break kept the game close. West Virginia’s first two drives of the second half ended with big Maryland plays on third down; defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu recorded a sack, and he combined with Lawtez Rogers for a four-yard tackle for loss on Brown. Late in the third quarter, with West Virginia still ahead by one, freshman Branden Jennings forced a fumble that was recovered by Rogers on third down.
“We emphasize that a lot: ‘What are you going to do? How are you going to change the narrative of the game?’ ” Okuayinonu said.
Maryland didn’t reclaim the lead until Petrino made a 26-yard field goal, his third of the day, with 9:16 left in the game. And then, after another long kickoff return from Wright, this time for 48 yards, Bennett picked off Doege’s pass in the end zone. That turnover let Tagovailoa take control of the team’s hopes, and in that moment, he shined and provided proof of the improved results that could lie ahead for this team.
“We haven’t really accomplished anything yet, so what we’ve got to do is just stay forward,” Jarrett said. “West Virginia is a good team, but we’ve got bigger goals.”