B1G 5: Taulia Tagovailoa is the best QB in America that nobody is talking about. That could change Friday
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the biggest topics in the B1G:
1. The B1G Story
Years ago, before the decision to follow his brother instead of forging his own path, Taulia Tagovailoa was taking part in Steve Clarkson’s annual quarterback camp retreat in Los Angeles.
Clarkson, a longtime quarterbacks coach who has mentored some of the top players in college and professional football, pointed to Tagovailoa and made a point to tell me he was different.
And by different, he meant from Tua – in tangible, recognizable ways.
“He’s a talent – and not because of that last name,” Clarkson told me. “Years from now, we’ll all be talking about him.”
That time has come, and now Taulia gets his first real opportunity to be more than Tua’s brother.
More than name, more than expectations.
Maryland plays host to Iowa on Friday night in a game that, one way or the other, will give us a clear idea of Ohio State’s biggest challenger in the Big Ten. While the Buckeyes try to get healthy and try harder to fix a broken defense, unbeaten Iowa looks like the best team in the conference.
Then there’s a second tier that includes Michigan State and, yes, Maryland. That’s right, the program that has accomplished next to nothing since joining the Big Ten in 2014; whose high-water mark for wins was 4 in their first season in the conference, might just be a significant factor in the Big Ten race.
The reason is Tua’s younger brother, the player who has an opportunity against Iowa to step out of his famous brother’s shadow and step into the College Football Playoff and Heisman Trophy races.
That’s Tau-leah Tagovailoa.
“We feel like this is a big opportunity for our team and our program,” Taulia said.
And it’s a chance for Tagovailoa to elevate his profile, and Maryland’s, in one magical night in College Park.
If he were on a higher profile Power 5 team, Taulia’s numbers this fall would already have sent a buzz through the college football landscape. As it is, the Iowa game is an opportunity to show what Tua’s younger brother has been doing since he left Alabama after the 2019 season.
He’s completing a ridiculous 75.6% of his passes for 1,340 yards, and has 10 TDs and only 1 INT – a tipped ball off his receiver’s hands. More than anything, he has Maryland playing better than it has in nearly two decades.
Maryland has been a Big Ten afterthought since it joined the league by paying an exorbitant exit free ($31 million) to the ACC. Soon after joining the Big Ten, Maryland fired coach Randy Edsall and hired DJ Durkin.
Durkin was fired after the death of a player called into question his coaching practices, and the entire scope of the way the football program was run. Locksley, who grew up in Washington D.C., went to Towson and was a former offensive coordinator under Edsall, was hired to systematically change the program.
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His first move was to bring Tagovailoa – who had lost the starting quarterback job at Alabama to Mac Jones – with him to College Park. There were lean early days during the rebuild, but Locksley forged ahead and now the Terps are trying to reach 5-0 for the first time since Ralph Friedgen’s team lost in the Orange Bowl in 2001.
The obstacle to reaching October unbeaten: Iowa’s stout defense. The Hawkeyes have not allowed more than 24 points in the last 25 games, and have won 10 consecutive games.
Iowa doesn’t necessarily do anything exceptional other than play defense, but it does just enough on offense to allow a run game and defense to control tempo. The Hawkeyes will far and away be the best defense Tagovailoa has faced this season.
“We have to keep the main thing the main thing,” Taulia said. “The best thing we can do it good preparation and not focusing on outside things we have no control over.”
2. Be wary, Ohio State
As crazy as it sounds, Saturday’s trip to Piscataway is a dicey and dangerous game for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes’ defense is a work in progress, and there’s uncertainty from week to week. They’re getting better – but is better enough in a tough road game against a team that can make things muddy and try to win ugly?
Rutgers showed last week at Michigan that it can slow tempo and play physical, and more important, play strong, fundamental defense. Michigan led the nation in rushing going into last week’s game at more than 300 yards per game.
The Wolverines ran for 112 against Rutgers’ fast, physical defense. Michigan ran 54 plays, and had the ball for just over 27 minutes.
There’s a ton of potential in the Ohio State offense – freshman TB TreyVeon Henderson is fantastic – QBs CJ Stroud and Kyle McCord have had problems getting the ball vertically to playmaking WR Chris Olave (18 catches, 14.2 ypc.). The offense simply isn’t as fluid as it has been in the past, and much of that is because of the inconsistent play from Stroud and McCord.
Meanwhile, Rutgers might have the best defense in the Big Ten, giving up only 13.5 points per game. If the Scarlet Knights can get anything in the passing game from QB Noah Vedral, this will be a fourth-quarter game.
3. To QB or not QB
There’s one overriding question at struggling Wisconsin: How much longer does Badgers coach Paul Chryst stay with QB Graham Mertz?
There’s too much good about the Wisconsin defense for the offense to stagnate this much under Mertz, the former 5-star recruit who began last season with breakout games against Illinois and Michigan but hasn’t played to that level since.
Mertz has 1 TD and 6 INTs this season, and is completing 56% of his passes. His struggles this season only magnify what happened last year after throwing 7 TDs and 0 INTs in the first 2 weeks of the season.
Since Week 3 of last season, Mertz has 3 TDs and 11 INTs and the Badgers are 3-5 in those 8 starts – with wins over Eastern Michigan, Wake Forest and a COVID-depleted Minnesota team.
Chryst has never been shy at replacing quarterbacks, all the way back to his days as the successful OC at Oregon State, and as OC at Wisconsin and head coach at Pittsburgh.
Michigan coming to Camp Randall isn’t exactly the optimum opportunity to make a change at quarterback, but backup Chase Wolf at least gives the offense a true dual-threat at the position.
In 3 seasons in Madison, Wolf has completed 9-of-12 passes for 56 yards, with 1 TD and 2 INT, and 5 carries for 24 yards.
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll and one big thing: What’s important at the quarter post?
1. Iowa: Yeah, it’s ugly. So what? In an offense-first age of CFB, the Hawkeyes are making it work with defense.
2. Penn State: If the Lions can get more consistent defensively (and get more turnovers), they’ll win the Big Ten.
3. Ohio State: The talent isn’t the same as previous seasons, and the quarterback play is a work in progress. Yet still the Big Ten favorite.
4. Michigan State: The turnaround from Year 1 to Year 2 has been remarkable. This team is the real deal.
5. Maryland: Mike Locksley has built it to this point: Now it’s time to win games that matter.
6. Michigan: Let’s start with cautious optimism. Still not sold on QB Cade McNamara – or the defense in critical games against balanced offenses.
7. Rutgers: If you’ve watched this team and can’t see A.) how far they’ve come under coach Greg Schiano, and B.) how good they will be in a year or two, you’re not paying close enough attention.
8. Wisconsin: More proof that the QB spot must get figured out: Badgers are rushing for 203.3 yards a game, an increase of 40 yards from last season (though 30 yards less than last full season in 2019).
9. Nebraska: It may not show in wins, but this team is getting better. Last 2 weeks: losses to No.3 Oklahoma and No.20 Michigan State by a combined 10 points.
10. Purdue: This might be Jeff Brohm’s best coaching job – all he needs is a healthy QB Jack Plummer making smart decisions to win 8 games.
11. Indiana: Dynamic QB Michael Penix Jr. hasn’t been the same player since ACL surgery in the offseason.
12. Minnesota: The Gophers are all over the place – win by 30 at Colorado, lose to one of the worst teams in CFB (Bowling Green) – because a team is a mirror of its quarterback, and QB Tanner Morgan is wildly inconsistent.
13. Northwestern: Choose a QB and stick with him: Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty or Ryan Hilinski?
14. Illinois: Since the upset of Nebraska in the opener, the Illini has been outscored 112-70 in 4 straight losses.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Iowa (-3.5) at Maryland
- Minnesota at Purdue (+2)
- Indiana at Penn State (-12)
- Ohio State at Rutgers (+15)
- Michigan (+2) at Wisconsin
Last week: 3-2