The B1G 10: Do Taulia Tagovailoa and Maryland have a next step in them this time around?
1. The B1G Story
The buildout is in its 5th season now, slowly moving along in incremental steps for a program that was last relevant more than 2 decades ago.
That was 2001, when Ralph Friedgen arrived as coach at Maryland and kept 2 young position coaches from the previous staff who had developed reputations as elite recruiters: James Franklin and Mike Locksley.
Maryland won 11 games in 2001, and Franklin and Locksley moved on to bigger and better things. One came all the way back — and now it’s Locksley trying to rebuild Maryland into something from nothing. Just like Friedgen.
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After last weekend’s rout of Indiana, the Terps are 5-0 for the first time since that dream 2001 season.
“There are a lot of people that didn’t think we could do this, where we are,” Locksley said after the Indiana win. “We’re 5-0 and we’re going to keep this thing going, and we’re going to keep plugging away, man.”
Now it’s time to see what the Terps have accomplished in this latest rebuild. Can they move closer to that 2001 season beginning Saturday at Ohio State? A big game, a big moment.
And one that almost never came for Locksley, who constructed his coaching resume in the early 2000s and eventually got the New Mexico job in 2009. Less than 3 years later, after he lost 26 of 28 games — and after problems off the field — he was fired.
He returned to Maryland as OC in 2012 under coach Randy Edsall and was named interim coach in 2015 after Edsall was fired in early October of that season. The entire staff was fired after the season.
Then 2 critical men entered Locksley’s coaching life at its low point: Alabama coach Nick Saban hired Locksley in 2016 as an offensive assistant (and eventually OC), and when the Maryland job opened up again in 2019, Terps AD Damon Evans hired Locksley as his head coach.
Evans, like Locksley, crapped out in his first big job at Georgia when he was arrested for a DUI. He was given a 2nd chance in 2018 by then Maryland president Wallace Loh, and he gave the same to Locksley a year later.
Now they’re in this together, building a program from the scrapheap of bad coaching hires.
“I’ve been a failed coach,” Locksley said. “I think the biggest thing that it validates is I’ve got a boss that took a chance and hired me.”
2. Building it slowly
Evans has been patient with Locksley, treading through some lean times (5 wins combined in his first 2 seasons) before Locksley’s recruiting and development began to pay off.
The Terps won 7 games in 2021, and when Maryland beat NC State in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl to end 2022, it marked the first time since 2010 (Friedgen’s last season) that the Terps had won 8 games.
But here’s the problem: None of the 8 wins were of consequence. All 5 losses were to the elite of the Big Ten: Playoff teams Ohio State and Michigan, West Division champion Purdue, 10-win Penn State and a Wisconsin team in the middle of a coaching transition.
And let’s be brutally honest: the 5 wins this season — Towson, Charlotte, Virginia, Michigan State, Indiana — aren’t exactly Playoff resume-builders. The Ohio State game will be a significant upgrade.
The only way to force everyone to take notice is to take a stand in a game that matters. The Terps nearly pulled it off in this game last season — and earlier in the year against Michigan.
Maryland had second half leads in both games, and pulled to within 5 points of Michigan late in the 4th quarter and 3 points of Ohio State midway through the 4th. But the defense couldn’t get critical stops.
To that end, Locksley hit the transfer portal and added impact starters and key backups for the defense. DT Jordan Phillips is a big run stuffer in the middle that Maryland has lacked, and CB Jaquan Sheppard is a field corner who has strengthened the pass defense. They join 2021 transfer Quashon Fuller, who is a force off the edge.
The defense has chopped 10 points from last year’s scoring average of 23.2, but the current numbers are against the overmatched. What happens when the heavy lifting arrives, beginning Saturday in Columbus?
“I don’t know about national perspective,” Locksley said. “But I know for us in that building, I don’t think there’s anybody in there that’s surprised. Our expectation is the one that counts and matters most.”
3. If you build it, The Epilogue
This season began in January, when Locksley fended off the NFL and other college teams to keep star quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa at Maryland.
Any significant step — any potential breakthrough wins vs. Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State — would come with Tagovailoa leading the way. This is Year 4 in the system, and Tagovailoa has grown parallel with the program.
He has dealt with the blowouts and last-second losses, and has been around for the defining wins that underscored the path being taken. He could’ve left for the NFL and been a mid-round selection, or could’ve left for another school (Alabama?) and started for a team with national title potential.
He said at Big Ten Media Days that he could’ve signed an NIL deal with an SEC team for $1.5 million. It’s not difficult to see where that offer came from: either Alabama, where he began his career, or Auburn or Florida. Those were the 3 SEC teams that needed a quarterback.
Tagovailoa instead chose to stay and finish what he started with Locksley, to continue the grind. He’s on pace to throw for more than 3,000 yards and 30 TDs, and his average yards per attempt (8.7) is the highest of his career.
He stayed up nights this offseason watching game tape of crushing losses, pondering how he could help Maryland get better. He zeroed in on East Division rivals Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Maryland can beat every other team in the Big Ten, but true growth will only be measured by what the Terps do against the Big 3 in the East Division.
“You learn from those losses, everything that happens in those games,” Tagovailoa said this summer. “When you’re put in that same position again, you know what it takes. You know how to succeed.”
4. Defense, out of the gate
Michigan leads the nation in scoring defense (6.0 ppg) and is 4th in total defense (245.8 ypg).
The Wolverines are loaded with potential 2024 NFL Draft picks, and they look more like the Georgia defenses of the last 2 years than the current Georgia defense. But look closer.
Look and see something even more impressive: Of the 30 points given up this season by Michigan — 3 TDs, 3 FGs — 17 came in the 4th quarter of blowouts when Michigan was deep into playing its 2nd- and 3rd-teamers.
The Wolverines’ 1st-team defense has given up all of 13 points this season: 2 field goals by Bowling Green and a touchdown from Rutgers. A remarkable feat 5 games into the season.
The next 4 games, at Minnesota, Indiana, at Michigan State, and Purdue — 4 of the worst offenses in the Big Ten — won’t likely change the trend.
5. The Weekly 5
Five picks against the spread.
Nebraska at Illinois (-3.5)
Maryland (+18.5) at Ohio State.
Purdue (+2.5) at Iowa
Michigan (-20.5) at Minnesota
Rutgers (+14.5) at Wisconsin
Last week: 3-2.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft eligible Big Ten player. This week: Ohio State RB TreVeyon Henderson.
“Elite speed. Deceptively strong. When that foot sticks in the ground, he explodes out of the cut. He gets to the 2nd level quickly. Before you know it, he’s on you. I don’t like him in pass (protection), but I think it’s more want than the ability to do it. I’d like to see more consistency on a play to play basis. It’s too up and down right now, but he’s also 1 of 3 at that position there, and he’s not really getting the chance to get lathered up.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing.
1. Michigan: This isn’t an anomaly, or a product of the opponent. We’re 5 games in, and QB JJ McCarthy is completing 79 percent of his passes.
2. Ohio State: How do you argue with an octogenarian (see: Holtz, Lou) with a vote in the Football Writer’s Association of American poll? Run. It. Up.
3. Penn State: I like how Penn State hit another gear when it looked like Northwestern would make it interesting. And how QB Drew Allar, in his 1st season as a starter, doesn’t flinch.
4. Wisconsin: Badgers have 4 weeks — a bye week and 3 winnable games (Rutgers, Iowa, at Illinois) — in preparation for Ohio State coming to Madison. What this season was all about from the jump.
5. Maryland: If Maryland wants a big impact against the Big 3 of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, it needs rare performances from RB Roman Hemby — the Big Ten’s most underrated player.
6. Iowa: It doesn’t matter who plays quarterback, the offense is a complete mess. Can’t throw the ball, can’t string together first downs. And no playmakers. Basically, 2022.
7. Minnesota: Difficult to understand what the Gophers are doing. They only change for the better if the pass game improves. It’s not improving by allowing Athan Kaliakmanis to throw it 14 times against Louisiana.
8. Rutgers: Time for Rutgers to show if a 4-1 start is the product of some truly fortunate scheduling or a team that has finally put it together under coach Greg Schiano. Wisconsin will be a strong test on both sides of the ball.
9. Purdue: Ryan Walters kept preaching that something good needed to happen to flip the switch. Let’s see if last week’s rout of Illinois — and the way the Purdue played clean — can bleed into this week’s game at Iowa.
10. Northwestern: A win over FCS Howard clears the over of the season (2.5 wins), and keeps the Wildcats within legitimate striking distance of 6 wins and the postseason. A remarkable achievement considering the circumstances.
11. Nebraska: A blowout loss to Michigan is not a measuring point. NU must clear baby steps. At the top of the list (and what are measuring points): the next 4 games, at Illinois, vs. Northwestern and Purdue, and at Michigan State. Those are 4 winnable games.
12. Illinois: The defense has cratered. From No. 1 in the nation scoring defense in 2022 (12.8 ppg), to 103rd (30.6). It’s personnel, adjusting to a new DC, and a run of strong offenses in the first month of the season.
13. Michigan State: The schedule got tougher, and 1st-year starting QB Noah Kim regressed. From 5 TDs and 0 INTs against Central Michigan and Richmond, to 1 TD and 6 INTs against Washington, Maryland and Iowa.
14. Indiana: So now a struggling offense rests with O-line coach Rod Carey as interim offensive coordinator. Ironically, Carey took over as offensive line coach midway through last season when Darren Hiller was fired.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: If Michigan State is looking for their next head coach, why not hire the guy who has beaten you the last 2 years? What are your thoughts on Washington’s Kalen DeBoer? — Donald Dingle, Detroit.
My thoughts are this: DeBoer would be foolish to leave Washington for Michigan State. Not that he would, anyway.
He has a better job at Washington, and with the Huskies moving to the Big Ten in 2024, his job just got exponentially better. The Huskies will pay what he wants, and the administration is financially committed to competing with the elite of college football to hire and retain a successful staff.
It was a lot easier for OC Ryan Grubb to turn down the Alabama OC job knowing Washington had already taken care of him financially a month earlier (a raise to $2 million annually in December 2022) when Texas A&M offered its OC position.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be options for Michigan State. At the top of the list: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi (former Spartans DC under Mark Dantonio), Duke coach Mike Elko and Washington State coach Jake Dickert.
2.2. The Penn State offense finally turned the ball over last week, ending a streak of 27 straight quarters (dating to last season) without a turnover.
Nick Singleton’s fumble on the opening kickoff led to a Northwestern field goal, and was the first turnover since Singleton’s fumble against Rutgers late last season.
Penn State is tied for the lead nationally in turnovers lost (1) with Oregon, and is tied for 3rd nationally in turnovers gained (12). The turnover margin of 2.2 per game leads the nation.
10. Quote to note
Indiana coach Tom Allen: “It’s about understanding the big picture of where we’re at and where we want to be, and the time that we have. We have a lot of football ahead of us. That’s a reality. That’s true. And we’ve got a (bye) week here to be able to get better, and that’s the focus.”