The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland’s dream opportunity rapidly turns into a nightmare in a 51-14 loss to No. 5 Iowa

Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. leaps into the end zone for a fourth-quarter touchdown against Maryland on Friday night. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In the early weeks of the season, the Maryland football team was a source of optimism and belief, prompting its fan base to hope a remarkable turnaround was imminent. Maybe in one of these marquee Big Ten games, the Terrapins would get an attention-grabbing upset unfamiliar in College Park. But when an opportunity to take that massive stride forward arrived, the Terps unraveled in astonishing fashion against No. 5 Iowa.

Every bit of enthusiasm that filled Maryland Stadium evaporated in a hurry Friday night as the Terrapins tested the limits of how quickly a game can swing from a close contest to a hopeless situation. Early on, students packed the stands, cheering with gusto beneath a massive new video board the school unveiled for this game. By halftime, those who had departed far outnumbered the subdued fans who remained, and the Hawkeyes rolled on to a 51-14 dismantling of the Terps.

Any hope that Maryland (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) could knock off a top-five opponent for the first time in nearly two decades disappeared during a short stretch at the start of the second quarter. In roughly five minutes of game time, the Hawkeyes scored three touchdowns as the Terps committed three turnovers and lost star wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. to a brutal leg injury.

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Just after Iowa (5-0, 2-0) punched the ball into the end zone for the go-ahead score to start the quarter, Demus fumbled a kickoff return as a defender grabbed his leg and it twisted in a way limbs are not supposed to bend. Demus, who had led the Terps in receiving yards in every game this season, left the field seated in the back of a cart, a devastating blow for a senior with NFL potential and for this Maryland team, which has a daunting conference slate ahead.

“It’ll be a challenge for this team here the next week to see if we’re a team that can stick together and bounce back, which I believe we will,” Coach Michael Locksley said. “I’ve been around these guys, and this team is better than what we showed tonight.”

Even a healthy Demus couldn’t have changed the outcome — not with ­quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa’s five interceptions and an abundance of penalties. But after Demus’s injury, the crowd hushed and never returned to its boisterous state because the Hawkeyes quickly scored on the second play of the ensuing drive. When Maryland had a chance to respond, at that point facing only a 17-7 deficit, Tagovailoa threw an interception on the first play of the next series. Iowa capitalized on the turnover by scoring another touchdown, and on Maryland’s next drive, Tagovailoa threw another pick, this time on the second play. And Iowa scored again.

Maryland’s staff preaches to the players to remain even-keeled, regardless of the circumstances, “but sometimes things just keep not going your way and it’s hard,” tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo said. “Mentally, it’s a struggle in the game, but you’ve just got to keep fighting.”

Maryland had a 7-3 lead when the second quarter began, albeit with the Hawkeyes on the 1-yard line and about to score. By the time the teams headed to the locker room, Iowa had full control and a comfortable 34-7 advantage. The first half ended with Tagovailoa throwing his fourth interception on a heaved pass as time mercifully expired — finally a mistake the Hawkeyes couldn’t turn into a touchdown. With their backs to the field, fans headed up the aisles, toward that flashy video board and into the streets, unwilling to watch another 30 minutes of this beatdown.

Tagovailoa thrived during Maryland’s 4-0 start, showcasing composure in key moments and benefiting from his team’s dynamic receivers. But he had yet to play in a game of this magnitude or against a defense so skilled at causing turnovers. Tagovailoa’s evening snowballed into disarray in the second quarter.

“I’ve still got a lot of faith in him as a quarterback,” Locksley said. “For four games, he played really, really well. And this was a poor game, not just on his part but on all of ours.”

Against the Hawkeyes’ stout defense, which entered Friday’s game allowing a conference-best 11 points per game, Maryland could never assemble much of a running game, either, finishing with just 97 yards on the ground.

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Unlike in some previous letdowns against top-tier opposition, the Terps jumped ahead of the Hawkeyes in the opening quarter. The Maryland defense held Iowa to a field goal, and then Okonkwo grabbed the early touchdown pass after a drive fueled by a pair of explosive plays from Demus. The next score for the Terps didn’t come until late in the third quarter — after Iowa had scored 41 straight points.

“You won’t be able to beat anybody playing football like that,” Okonkwo said, referencing his team’s seven turnovers and the 10 penalties that cost it 86 yards.

And so the game ended with the result Maryland fans have come to expect. In the past two decades, the Terrapins have defeated a top-10 opponent only three times, with their most recent success coming in 2007 — when the players on the current team were in their early days of elementary school. On average, Maryland’s games against top-five teams since 2000 have ended in a 30-point loss.

Locksley has lamented what he described as the Terps’ “self-inflicted wounds” — penalties, dropped passes, turnovers and sacks — but when facing lesser opponents, Maryland could survive those miscues. Not against Iowa. If the Terps had planned to upset the visitors, they would have needed to perform at their best. Instead, they sunk to their worst.

“We have many more opportunities to get back and show people who we really are,” Okonkwo said he’s telling his younger teammates. “This isn’t really us.”

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