Maryland football: Can Taulia Tagovailoa get himself and the Terps over the hump this time?
Little Brother Syndrome.
It’s a real thing for Taulia Tagovailoa and his Maryland Terrapins, who have been battling to emerge from the shadows of older siblings, literal and figurative, since they joined forces a couple years ago.
Fighting for respect comes with the territory for the quarterback, who must deal with the shadow of an older brother who just happens to have been the No. 5 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. His school also fights for respect as 1 of the 2 newest members of the Big Ten, having joined along with Rutgers in 2014. The Terps are farther along that path than the Scarlet Knights, but that’s not saying all that much.
Maryland has not been a Top 25 team, or beaten one, since Tagovailoa took the starting job in 2020, just 6 days after brother Tua saw his first NFL action. Taulia remains the “other” Tagovailoa.
The Terps got tantalizingly close last year to Top 25 recognition, and they are on the cusp again now after a 27-13 victory over Michigan State. Up next is a meeting with Purdue, which like Maryland is among the “others receiving votes” in the AP poll.
If Tagovailoa can outduel Aidan O’Connell in a showdown of marquee QBs Saturday at Maryland Stadium, both he and his team might gain a bit of national buzz not achieved in College Park since last year’s 4-0 start. A win wouldn’t necessarily vault Maryland (4-1, 1-1 B1G) from 32nd into the Top 25, but it would get them close. And Indiana, Northwestern and Wisconsin — all struggling B1G teams to say the least — lie next on the schedule. Reaching 7-1 or even 8-1 looks like a real possibility.
Of course, Maryland has been here before. It was unbeaten going into a home game against No. 5 Iowa last year. The Hawkeyes’ stout defense picked off 5 Tagovailoa passes in a 51-14 massacre, and the Terps faded to a 7-6 finish.
Taulia persevered through 26 sacks and 6 losses in a 7-game stretch to post the best passing season in school history. Single-season records set included completions (328), yards (3,860), 300-yard games (7) and TDs (26, tied with Scott Milanovich in 1993).
Big-name transfer in 2020
Mike Locksley left Alabama to return to Maryland and take over a teetering program in 2019, and he convinced Taulia to follow a year later.
Locksley, Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator in 2018 and an assistant in Tuscaloosa for 3 seasons, teased Terps fans by winning his first 2 games in 2019 by a combined 133-20 score to secure a No. 21 AP ranking. It was a mirage. Maryland lost to Temple the next week and finished 3-9 with Josh Jackson and Tyrrell Pigrome sharing the quarterback job.
After several mop-up appearances at Alabama — including a game started by Tua and the game after Tua suffered his college career-ending hip injury — Taulia moved north the next year and started from Day 1 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
He passed for only 94 yards and was intercepted 3 times in his debut, a 43-3 loss to Northwestern. But he bounced back the next week to go 26-of-35 for 394 yards and 3 TDs in a 45-44 overtime victory over Minnesota, adding 8 rushes for 59 yards and 2 TDs.
The 5-11, 200-pound junior has played solid, sometimes spectacular football since, with a few exceptions, the main one being against Iowa last October. He threw only 6 INTs in the Terps’ other 12 games in 2021 while leading the program to its first bowl victory since 2010.
Entering this season, Locksley called his quarterback “the most underrated player in the country.”
Reviving the program
Locksley and Tagovailoa are stirring the echoes of Maryland’s brief epochs of football glory.
Maryland is 20-48 in B1G games since joining the league, and has been outside the Top 25 for all but 2 weeks (No. 21 for 1 week in 2019, No. 25 for 1 week in 2013) since 2010. It hasn’t been inside the Top 20 since 2003 and hasn’t been Top 10 since 2001. The high points from this century have one thing in common: Ralph Friedgen, who coached the Terps from 2001-10.
Since Friedgen was forced out, Maryland hasn’t finished better than 1 game above .500 — and hadn’t won a bowl game before topping Virginia Tech 54-10 in the Pinstripe Bowl in December.
Randy Edsall (22-34 from 2011-15), DJ Durkin (10-15 from 2016-17) and Matt Canada (5-7 in 2018) followed Friedgen.
At that point, Maryland decided it needed some Alabama cred and brought back a former assistant. Locksley spent 4 years as Edsall’s OC/quarterbacks coach and finished 2015 as interim head coach, going 1-5. His resume looked a whole lot better after 3 seasons with Saban.
Huge game on Saturday
Maryland, favored by 3, would make a case for being the 4th-best team in the B1G with a win over Purdue, especially if it’s a decisive one. If the offensive line and the defense can hold up well enough to not be detriments, Maryland can make a statement against the Boilermakers. Locksley has flanked his QB with 3 stud receivers and a versatile young running back. The pieces are in place.
Over the back half of the schedule, the Terps will be favored against all but Ohio State and Penn State. Maryland hasn’t been 9-3 since 2003, Friedgen’s 3rd season. It’s totally doable. It starts with beating Purdue.
Taulia needs the publicity
Taulia followed Tua from Hawaii to Alabama, riding the hype wave the name Tagovailoa provided.
But Lia, as Taulia sometimes goes by, trails his 24-year-old brother by more than just 2 years in age. Tua was a 5-star prospect in 2017; Taulia was a 4-star in 2019. Tua has 2 inches on his sub-6 foot brother, which doesn’t seem like much but might be in the eyes of NFL scouts. Speaking or which, Taulia isn’t looked at as a major NFL prospect, let alone a 1st-rounder.
To change that outlook, he’ll need to get himself and his team into a higher gear.
Saturday, he’ll be the lesser NFL QB prospect on the field.
According to WalterFootball.com, O’Connell is the No. 23 draft-eligible quarterback; Taulia isn’t listed. Another ranking has O’Connell at 33rd and Tagovailoa 38th — behind even Wisconsin washout Graham Mertz. At least he’s ahead of Spencer Petras and Sean Clifford!
Why no love?
Well, Maryland dinks and dunks a lot, so there may be questions about Tagovailoa’s arm strength. He doesn’t run as much as people probably thought he would, with only 215 career yards on 1.6 per carry.
But the main 2 things are the interceptions and lack of a signature victory. Maryland played No. 4 Michigan to within a touchdown 2 weeks ago, but Taulia threw 2 picks and only 1 TD in the 34-27 loss. His best all-around game as a Terp remains his 2nd start, the overtime win over the Golden Gophers 2 years ago.
Tagovailoa needs a breakthrough, for himself and his team. If he and the Terps can escape obscurity, they’ll both climb in national rankings.
Already Maryland’s best
Tagovailoa passed Boomer Esiason (1981-83) for 3rd place on Maryland’s career passing yards list in last weekend’s victory over the Spartans. He has 6,287, and will likely pass Chris Turner (6,543 from 2007-09) this week and should reel in Milanovich (7,301 from 1992-95) sometime in November. Those dates indicate just how spread out Maryland’s moments of prominence have been.
At 41 career TD passes, Taulia is 1 behind Esiason and 8 behind Milanovich. He’ll own all the pertinent career marks by season’s end. And he has the best QB rating of anyone who’s thrown for even 500 yards at Maryland. The only numbers he could add to the resume at this point would be single-game records. He hasn’t throw for 500 yards or 6 TDs yet — no one at Maryland ever has.
1 more year?
If he remains under the radar as an NFL prospect, Tagovailoa could always return to Maryland for a senior season in 2023. He wouldn’t even be a junior this year had not Saban burned his redshirt in 2019 following Tua’s injury.
There’s still plenty of time for the younger Tagovailoa, even though it seems like he’s already been at Maryland forever.
Locksley and Terrapins fans will be in no hurry to see him go. Especially if things go well against the Boilermakers on Saturday.
Maybe Lia is just getting started.