The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Record-setting offense, struggling defense. It’s just like the early ’90s for Maryland football.

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is closing in on the school record for passing yards for a season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Scott Milanovich couldn’t believe the play call, and he was livid. He loved that Maryland offense in 1993. So often he got to pass, and the Terrapins had success. But this time, in the finale of a dreary season, the coaches called a running play on a two-point conversion, and it failed. Milanovich’s team had only one win heading into this game against Wake Forest, and the Terps trailed by a steep margin.

Yet this matchup turned into a fond memory during a record-setting season. Milanovich racked up passing yards, building school records that still exist today, but his team hardly won. The defense had a historically poor campaign, but in Winston-Salem, N.C., that day, the unit mustered a fourth-down stop at the 1-yard line, and Milanovich slung the ball down the field on a series that ended with a game-winning touchdown pass as time expired.

“At least it ended good, right?” Milanovich says now, fully aware of the dissonance between his school-record 3,499 passing yards that season and the team’s 2-9 record.

The wins usually matter more than gaudy statistics, but the Terps’ run-and-shoot offense in the early 1990s catered to these record-breaking campaigns. Only six Power Five schools have single-season passing records that have held up longer than Milanovich’s at Maryland.

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As offenses evolve and lend themselves to prolific passing attacks, about half of programs from major conferences have had a quarterback set the school’s single-season passing record in the past decade. Yet at Maryland, the names of Milanovich and his predecessor, John Kaleo, still fill the record book and top the lists in nearly every passing category — a testament to the passing power of Maryland’s offenses under Coach Mark Duffner but also to how much the school has struggled at quarterback in recent years.

A handful of those records are finally poised to be broken by Taulia Tagovailoa, who has reinvigorated Maryland’s passing game since he transferred from Alabama before last season. The Terps have two games left in the regular season — Saturday against No. 6 Michigan and the finale at Rutgers — plus a possible bowl if Maryland (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) can manage one more win, so Tagovailoa should have time to reach these marks.

Tagovailoa, a redshirt sophomore, will become the single-season passing leader if he throws for at least 395 yards, breaking the 28-year-old record Milanovich set in just 11 games. Tagovailoa’s 268 completions are just 18 behind Kaleo’s record set in 1992, and if Tagovailoa throws six more touchdowns, he’ll match Milanovich’s 1993 program-best 26. When asked about these stats, Tagovailoa offered only affirmation that he is not aware of them.

Tagovailoa already grabbed the record for the most 300-yard games in a season when he notched his sixth in last week’s loss at Michigan State. And when Tagovailoa had 41 completions in the previous game against Penn State, he overtook Milanovich’s mark from that 1993 Wake Forest win for the second most in a game.

Until Tagovailoa led this Maryland offense to 319.5 passing yards per game, the Terps hadn’t reached the 300-yard benchmark since that 1993 season. In the five seasons before Tagovailoa arrived, Maryland never averaged more than 180 passing yards.

Some of Tagovailoa’s mistakes make it easy to overlook his production; he has had turnovers in the red zone in each of the past two losses. Even though Tagovailoa’s skill has given the Terps a chance in recent games, he has significant room for improvement. But Coach Michael Locksley said, “We’ll be able to win with this kid around here because he’s progressing the way he needs to.”

The recipe to generating these impressive passing statistics isn’t all positive. Tagovailoa hasn’t gotten much support from the running game, and the Terps have been playing from behind in most games against top Big Ten opponents. Milanovich’s 1993 team had an inexperienced defense, “so we were in some shootouts,” he said, playing aggressive and passing often. Kaleo, who’s second on the single-season passing list, led a 1992 team that finished 3-8.

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“Program-wise, we weren’t quite as successful [from the perspective of] wins and losses,” said Clyde Christensen, the quarterbacks coach at Maryland in 1992 and 1993. “But we did score a bunch of points and get a bunch of yards.”

Milanovich, now the quarterbacks coach for the Indianapolis Colts, is aware of all his records at Maryland only because they have appeared in his bios for his positions with professional teams over the past couple decades. He can’t follow the Terps on a weekly basis, but Scottie Montgomery, Maryland’s former offensive coordinator, now coaches running backs for the Colts, so Milanovich has heard about Tagovailoa’s talent.

Milanovich attended Maryland because of all the quarterbacks the program had recently sent to the NFL, including Boomer Esiason and Frank Reich, who’s now the coach of the Colts. Milanovich redshirted in 1991, his first year on campus, and when the Terps hired Duffner before the next season, Milanovich’s first instinct was to leave. He didn’t think the run-and-shoot offense fit a quarterback who wasn’t very mobile. But Christensen convinced him to stay in College Park.

Mouse Davis, the coach at Portland State from 1975 to 1980, is credited with popularizing this offense, and Duffner’s staff implemented the system at Holy Cross. At the time, Joe Restic ran a complicated, wide-open scheme at Harvard, and Duffner said, “We knew what kind of stress that he put on people.”

Duffner brought the run-and-shoot to College Park when Maryland hired him in 1992, and Kaleo won the starting quarterback job. The offense often employed four wide receivers at a time, an uncommon approach in those days, and it required the quarterback and receivers to make the same read that would determine their routes.

Christensen describes Kaleo as a “feisty, 5-10 kid who just had a good sense of timing.” Kaleo threw for 3,392 yards in Duffner’s first season at the helm, and that total is the second best in school history, just ahead of Tagovailoa’s production of 3,105 yards this year. Duffner remembers the trip to Penn State that season, when his team accumulated more than 500 offensive yards.

“Jeez-o-pete, it was incredible,” said Duffner, who’s now on the Cincinnati Bengals’ staff. “At any rate, we didn’t win.”

That’s the recurring theme with these teams: a high-flying offense paired with a defense that couldn’t stop opponents. The next season, Milanovich topped Kaleo’s mark for passing yards. As a young quarterback, Milanovich loved getting to throw the ball on what felt like every down.

“It didn’t matter who it was,” Christensen said. “We just had a confidence that we could move the football on everybody, and it was really fun to do that.”

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Kaleo and Milanovich were already on the roster when Duffner’s staff arrived, so Christensen admits Maryland “ended up stumbling into” having the right quarterbacks for this system. The program had talented receivers, including Marcus Badgett and Jermaine Lewis, who helped this offense thrive, and they still have some school records, too.

Christensen, now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterbacks coach, moved on to work at Clemson in 1994, and Duffner’s staff eventually strayed from that pass-happy scheme to a more balanced attack. Maryland wanted to control the ball more, hoping that might help the defensive issues. Duffner said opponents had started to catch up with the unfamiliar offense. By 1995, the Terps called some plays with two running backs on the field. Maryland still couldn’t win more than six games, and after the 1996 season, the school fired Duffner.

He headed to the NFL, where he has coached ever since. And Maryland’s passing records stayed mostly intact with those statistics from the early 1990s. As new players overtook the best marks at most other Power Five schools, the work of Milanovich and Kaleo held firm. The Terps, finally with a prolific passer, may soon replace the name at the top.

“I am surprised they haven’t been broken,” Milanovich said, “but if now’s the time, now’s the time.”

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