The sample size is small, and the circumstances surrounding the start of Coach Mike Locksley’s second season at the helm are less than ideal. But Maryland football’s shortcomings were on full display Saturday night and exposed in its 43-3 season-opening defeat, leaving ample room for improvement on every front.
There were the defensive lapses in the secondary, offering Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey multiple open targets. A lack of containment allowed Northwestern to scamper across the field with relative ease. The Terrapins’ running game — so often its lifeline last season — managed just 64 yards.
Most noticeable of all, though, was the quarterback play, which overshadowed those other issues on the field because of the hope Taulia Tagovailoa brought with him when he transferred from Alabama this offseason.
The sophomore’s potential is often lauded, and Saturday’s result doesn’t change that. But potential didn’t materialize into instant impact Saturday night, not with the interceptions and overthrows throughout his debut signaling the distance Tagovailoa has to go before he — and the offense with him — seems in control.
“None of us, coaches included, played a good game, or had a great game,” Locksley said. “As the quarterback, of course he takes the brunt of the criticism, especially when you turn it over. But again, these are things … that we’ll be able to get corrected.”
Maryland has long been defined by unsteady quarterback play. Since 2016, six different players have started games at the position. Last year’s starters — Josh Jackson and Tyrrell Pigrome — both departed, with Jackson opting out of the season and Pigrome transferring to Western Kentucky.
Tagovailoa — as well as his backup, former four-star prospect Lance LeGendre — offered a ray of light at the position. Tagovailoa is another former four-star recruit, and while family doesn’t guarantee talent, his brother is Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback for the Miami Dolphins.
His debut didn’t pan out as the Terrapins had planned, however, with Taulia Tagovailoa finishing 14-for-25 with 94 yards and three interceptions.
“Those are things that I can learn from,” Tagovailoa said, before saying he was “100 percent” sure he could take this performance and improve on it moving forward.
Tagovailoa started 6-for-7, looking crisp on Maryland’s opening drive as he led the offense to a field goal. But when he took the field the next time, Tagovailoa overshot wide receiver Rakim Jarrett for his first interception.
On the ensuing drive, Tagovailoa threw into double coverage deep down field and missed Dontay Demus. His pass instead fell into the hands of Northwestern safety JR Pace. Those miscues — plus a muffed kickoff before halftime — built a 30-3 hole heading into the break.
After those errant passes, Tagovailoa seemed off-kilter for the rest of the first half. He missed a wide-open Demus on a rollout and overthrew Brian Cobbs for what would have been a first down.
And while he showed some improvement with his short-passing game in the second half — particularly when targeting Jeshaun Jones — Tagovailoa forced a deep ball into double coverage to start the fourth quarter for his third interception.
“After the first pick, you know, that was a mistake,” Tagovailoa said. “We try to shake it off. After that, it was me. And I take full ownership of that. We just gotta get better.”
The 5-foot-11 gunslinger stood with his hands on his helmet after his final giveaway, staring down field to where Wildcats defenders celebrated with the ball in their arms.
Then he walked back toward the sideline, heard a word of advice from his coach and trotted out there again for the next series. Locksley has said Tagovailoa won’t have to look over his shoulder at LeGendre, opting to give a young player a long leash.
That sure was true in Maryland’s season opener, with three interceptions playing a key roll in a drubbing. But it’s a small sample size and only the start of Tagovailoa’s Terrapins career. Nothing’s written in stone yet.
“This is still his first career start in college,” Locksley said. “And so, he made some mistakes, threw the ball into double coverage. Maybe threw the ball down the field on a short situation where we’d like him to a higher percentage throw and make a better decision there. But for the most part, I thought that he didn’t show signs of being uncomfortable.”