Maryland’s football program hasn’t had many reasons to celebrate lately, but toward the end of its home finale Saturday against a hapless Rutgers squad, joy already had begun radiating from the sideline.
“He tried to act like he didn’t hear it,” Jones said.
Tagovailoa, who often shies away from acknowledging his records at Maryland, rose, then lifted the hand of the wide receiver who reeled in that breakthrough touchdown pass. Tagovailoa said he “wanted to make him feel special” because Jones shined in a standout outing, too. So they stood together, the wideout who has torn his ACL twice and the quarterback who has elevated the program, to appreciate their final highlight in College Park this season.
The Terps dominated throughout the day, in large part thanks to Tagovailoa, despite the quarterback hobbling through the matchup at times because of a knee injury that has given him persistent trouble this season. Still, Tagovailoa recorded his 12th career game with at least 300 passing yards.
“When he’s on, we’re usually on,” Coach Michael Locksley said. “That’s kind of how it goes with that position.”
Maryland (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten) had lost three straight, including a pair of lopsided blowouts that tarnished the final month of a regular season that began with plenty of promise. But as the seniors played their final game in College Park, the Terps rediscovered their groove. Maryland’s defense stifled the Scarlet Knights (4-8, 1-8) and delivered the program’s first shutout in conference play since 2008.
Jones, a fifth-year player, notched a career-high 152 receiving yards on senior day. He scored with a 27-yard grab during the fourth quarter, the final catch in his excellent outing that handed Tagovailoa his 50th career passing touchdown, more than any other Terp.
Jones started his career by scoring receiving, rushing and passing touchdowns in his debut, but “that seems like it was ages ago,” he said. Since then, he has gone through a coaching change and two major knee injuries. Locksley said he’s working to recruit Jones to return for another season because he has an additional year of eligibility remaining.
“The way he came and [began his career] with the big game against Texas, it was great to see him play the way he played today,” Locksley said. “Hopefully, it’s a precursor for what things look like next year for him if he decides to come back.”
Tagovailoa limped off the field just before halftime, missing several snaps on a drive that ended in a field goal, but he returned after the break, continuing to lead the offense and break a record while jogging gingerly between plays. Tagovailoa finished with 342 yards on 25-for-37 passing before Eric Najarian relieved him late in the game. Billy Edwards Jr., the Terps’ backup quarterback, was not available because of an ankle injury. The Terps also were without leading receiver Rakim Jarrett, who is dealing with a knee injury.
Though Maryland leaned heavily on Tagovailoa’s arm, redshirt freshman running back Roman Hemby found the end zone three times. He finished with 70 rushing yards and propelled Maryland to its comfortable lead early with two first-half scores from the 1-yard line and another in the third quarter from the 8.
Maryland’s seventh regular season win — its most since 2014 — triggered a one-year contract extension for Locksley, with his deal now running through 2027. If the Terps win their bowl game, they will finish with eight victories for the first time since 2010.
“I’m here for the long haul,” Locksley said. “This is where I’ve always wanted to be. ... I think anybody that’s watched the trajectory of our program sees the improvement. We’re not there yet. We’re a few players away, a couple plays away, and it’s my job to go get those players and to create those plays so that we can take another step as we build a championship program.”
After Maryland honored its seniors during a pregame ceremony, Dontay Demus Jr., in his fifth season with the Terps, became the seventh player in program history to amass at least 2,000 career receiving yards. He had a quiet outing with just 13 yards but managed to reach that key milestone. Kicker Chad Ryland, another fifth-year player who transferred from Eastern Michigan, had a marquee senior day, making all three of his field goal attempts.
The Rutgers offense had a dreadful showing with just 135 yards and gave Maryland’s defense the opportunity to shine. The Scarlet Knights finished the first half with 59 yards, two first downs and an 0-for-7 clip on third down. Six of their drives before the break ended with punts, including five that failed to pick up a first down. Rutgers’s most successful series went 22 yards before it ended with a failed attempt to convert a fourth down.
The Terps needed time before they capitalized, despite having a far more efficient offense from the start. Maryland had two first-quarter drives into Rutgers territory that were derailed by what Locksley described as “very costly” fumbles. The Terps turned their next methodical series into Hemby’s first touchdown and cruised from there with Tagovailoa in control.
After the game, Tagovailoa’s family joined him on the field. His sisters, who had yet to attend a game this season, surprised him before kickoff, and other extended family members from Hawaii made the trip. They posed for photos and hung leis around his neck — “kind of our love language of supporting me” — and he left with dozens. It signified a “graduation” of sorts, he said. Tagovailoa had finished another regular season at Maryland, breaking another record and helping the program take another step forward along the way.