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Taulia Tagovailoa keeps his poise and leads Maryland past Michigan State

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was solid in leading the Terps past Michigan State. (Julio Cortez/AP)

As the Maryland football program gradually rises from the doldrums of the Big Ten, Taulia Tagovailoa, more than any other player, has fueled those leaps of progress. To succeed, the Terrapins need their quarterback. But the day before this matchup against Michigan State, Tagovailoa “was not necessarily all the way there,” said his coach, Michael Locksley.

Tagovailoa had far more pressing thoughts swirling through his mind.

He had just watched his older brother, Tua, suffer a frightening concussion in an NFL game Thursday night. Eventually, amid a whirlwind 48 hours for the younger quarterback, Taulia talked to Tua via FaceTime. Locksley recalled Tua telling his brother: “Hey, I’m fine, man. Go play. I’m looking forward to seeing you go play and win a game.” After dinner Friday night, Locksley started to notice Taulia’s usual energy return. And then Saturday, Tagovailoa led the Terps to a 27-13 win over the Spartans the way he often has — with poise and productivity.

By the numbers, Saturday’s game at newly renamed SECU Stadium wasn’t Tagovailoa’s best outing. But the circumstances and mental toll of the past two days made it one of his most impressive performances with the Terrapins.

“I’ll take my hat off to that kid,” said Locksley, who also coached Tua at Alabama and has a strong relationship with the Tagovailoa family. “You guys have no idea what the last 24 to 48 hours has been like for him. … Obviously the injury to his brother was heavy on his mind. We did a good job of surrounding him [with support].”

Tagovailoa picked apart a struggling Michigan State secondary at a time when his team needed to respond from its first loss of the season last week at Michigan, a defeat that included him suffering minor rib and knee injuries. Wet conditions could have threatened Maryland’s prolific passing game, but Tagovailoa was unfazed.

Maryland (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) handed the Spartans their third straight loss. Tagovailoa and the Terps controlled much of the game, capitalizing on the Spartans’ lapses. Tagovailoa, who was not available to reporters after the game, finished with 314 yards on 32-for-41 passing; he had just one touchdown but no major errors.

“He was able to compartmentalize today and really focus on doing his job, and I thought the kid showed up,” Locksley said.

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Tagovailoa played this game two days after his older brother, the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, suffered a concussion during a game in Cincinnati and had to be taken from the field on a stretcher. The scary scene in which Tua lay frozen on the ground with his hands splayed came four days after he was evaluated for a possible head injury in Miami’s previous matchup but was allowed to return to that game and then play again Thursday.

As the NFL and the Dolphins face intense scrutiny over the quarterback’s medical care, Tua wrote in a statement that he is “feeling much better and focused on recovering so I can get back out on the field with my teammates.”

Taulia, who is very close with his older brother, learned of the injury from College Park amid his preparation for Saturday’s game.

“We’re always making sure everybody’s okay,” defensive back Tarheeb Still said. “Even if he’s hanging his head walking around the locker room a little down, we’ve still got him, and he knows we’ve got him because we’re his brothers.”

Maryland’s defense did its part by holding Michigan State (2-3, 0-2) to just eight yards of offense during the third quarter while the Terps dominated possession and grabbed a two-score lead. The Terps scored only on a pair of field goals from Chad Ryland in the second half, but they held the Spartans scoreless after the break. Locksley praised the halftime adjustments made by defensive coordinator Brian Williams.

Tagovailoa stayed cool when surrounded by Michigan State’s pressure, and the Spartans’ struggling pass defense often left him with wide-open options downfield. Eight of Tagovailoa’s passes picked up at least 15 yards, and his offensive line allowed only one sack against a formidable Michigan State pass rush.

As Maryland marched down the field on its opening drive, Tagovailoa became the fastest quarterback in program history to record 6,000 passing yards. Antwain Littleton II, a redshirt freshman running back, powered up the middle on a fourth-and-one play during that drive and then scored from 15 yards out moments later.

Early in the fourth quarter, the 235-pound running back barreled down the field for a 68-yard gain but was forced out of bounds just shy of the goal line. He had four attempts to punch the ball into the end zone but landed inches short on fourth down.

“Minus the four cracks we had at the 1-yard line after the long run, [Littleton] has played really good football for us,” Locksley said. “He had the hot hand today. We left him in there, fed him. With a big-body guy like that, he wears down defenses. Eventually, something’s going to pop.”

Even though Littleton couldn’t convert in that sequence, he finished the game with multiple successful carries on third- and fourth-and-short situations. Those moments, in addition to sophomore running back Colby McDonald’s two-yard score in the opening quarter, highlighted Maryland’s rushing attack, which finished with 175 yards.

All three of Maryland’s primary running backs — Littleton, McDonald and starter Roman Hemby — also got involved in the passing game, combining for 10 catches for 66 yards. Tagovailoa distributed the ball to 10 Terps as he racked up his 10th career game with at least 300 passing yards, matching a school record.

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The Terps’ defense struggled at times early but mustered enough stops — and benefited from enough special teams woes — for Maryland to enter halftime with a 21-13 lead.

After two straight touchdown drives to start the game, Maryland’s offense sputtered with just 15 total yards on the next two series. The unit rediscovered its groove on a methodical drive late in the half that featured 10 pass completions and ended with Rakim Jarrett’s touchdown reception.

On what could have been a huge swing in favor of the Terps, sophomore safety Dante Trader Jr. picked off Payton Thorne’s pass and returned it for a touchdown. The score was nullified by a personal foul call on Corey Coley Jr., who hit a Michigan State receiver as the ball was tipped into the hands of Trader. (Locksley said he didn’t want to “go down that rabbit hole” and talk about that penalty.) Michigan State retained possession, but Jakorian Bennett blocked the Spartans’ field goal attempt as time expired. Michigan State already had missed a field goal and had a bad snap derail an extra-point attempt in the second quarter.

The defense’s strong second half is promising for the Terps’ upcoming slate of games — Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern — that could help them keep their momentum rolling.