COLLEGE PARK — Maryland redshirt junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa has dealt with a whirlwind of emotions over the past 48 hours.
On Thursday night, he watched his older brother Tua suffer a frightening head injury during the Miami Dolphins’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals and be taken off the field on a stretcher. The indelible moment in front of a national audience sparked immediate debate about the NFL’s concussion protocols, which allowed the star quarterback to play just four days after hitting his head in the previous game.
As Maryland football coach Mike Locksley considered the impact the scary scene had on his young quarterback, a simple FaceTime call between the brothers changed everything.
“Tua basically said, ‘Hey, I’m fine and go play. I’m looking forward to seeing you go play and win the game,’” Locksley said.
The brief conversation with his brother give Taulia the energy he needed to throw for 314 yards and a touchdown and move into third place on Maryland’s all-time passing list in the Terps’ 27-13 win over Michigan State on Saturday at SECU Stadium.
“With my background with that family, those boys are warriors,” Locksley said of the Tagovailoa brothers, who he coached when he was the offensive coordinator at Alabama. “Once he had the conversation with his brother, he was able to focus on doing his job and I thought the kid showed up and played well.”
A week after suffering a knee injury in a loss to No. 4 Michigan, Tagovailoa was efficient Saturday, completing 32 of 41 attempts to become the fastest quarterback in school history to eclipse 6,000 career passing yards and move above Boomer Esiason in the record book. The Alabama transfer connected with 10 different receivers, as redshirt senior receiver Jeshaun Jones had six catches for 60 yards and junior Rakim Jarrett, who injured his head against the Wolverines, totaled 41 yards and a touchdown on five receptions.
Tagovailoa had the hot hand from the start. During the first drive of the afternoon, he completed a 16-yard pass to senior Dontay Demus Jr. before finding running back Roman Hemby for a 20-yard catch-and-run. With the Terps facing a third-and-8, Tagovailoa threw a 21-yard pass over the middle to Florida transfer Jacob Copeland, putting Maryland (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) at the Spartans’ 28-yard line. A few plays later, redshirt freshman running back Antwain Littleton II broke left for a 15-yard touchdown run, capping a 12-play, 93-yard scoring drive.
Littleton, who rushed for 120 yards on 19 carries, including a 68-yard run in the fourth quarter, has scored a touchdown in six straight games, the longest streak by a Terp in 17 years.
“He knows we’re his brothers [and] we got him at the end of the day,” Littleton said of Tagovailoa.
After Littleton’s opening score, Michigan State (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) responded. Quarterback Peyton Thorne (27-for-44 for 221 yards and a touchdown) completed four passes for more than 10 yards, and running back Elijah Collins slipped past several Maryland defenders for a 12-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7 with 9:15 left in the first quarter.
Still, the Spartans didn’t have an answer for Maryland’s offense. Tagovailoa stepped into the pocket and escaped three Michigan State defenders before throwing a deep pass to tight end Corey Dyches for a 44-yard gain. Three plays later, running back Colby McDonald scored a 2-yard touchdown to give Maryland a 14-7 lead with under six minutes left.
In the second quarter, Michigan State missed an opportunity to even the score. After Thorne’s 8-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jayden Reed with 4:24 to go, the Spartans failed to convert a fake extra-point attempt, helping Maryland maintain a 14-13 lead.
On the following drive, Tagovailoa once again marched the offense down the field before throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jarrett, extending the lead to 21-13 with 42 seconds left.
“I’ll take my hat off to that kid,” Locksley said. “We did a good job of surrounding him, but I liked the way he was able to kind of compartmentalize and lean on his brothers, and that’s the culture we try to create.”
Maryland had a chance to break the game open when Thorne’s pass slipped off Reed’s outstretched hand before being intercepted by sophomore safety Dante Trader Jr., who ran 47 yards for a touchdown. However, Trader’s touchdown was negated due to a questionable personal foul call on sophomore defensive back Corey Cooley Jr., who hit Reed in the shoulder just after the ball arrived.
“We can’t control the referees [and] we can’t control the calls,” Locksley said. “At some point, I think we’ll earn the respect to where we are able to take advantage of calls like that.”
Michigan State didn’t take advantage of the penalty, however, as the Spartans’ 45-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by senior defensive back Jakorian Bennett as time expired.
The Terps’ offense was held in check in the second half, but one of their rising stars made sure they came away with points. After an 11-play drive stalled at the Spartans’ 25 with 8:26 left in the third quarter, kicker Chad Ryland hit a 43-yard field goal to tie the Big Ten Conference record with his 24th consecutive make. The Eastern Michigan transfer just missed breaking the record, missing a 50-yard attempt with 1:22 to go, but bounced back to nail a 51-yard try that gave Maryland a 27-13 lead with 7:54 to go in the fourth.
While Maryland failed to reach the end zone in the second half, the defense made sure the Spartans’ losing streak extended to three games. Maryland held Michigan State to 76 total yards in the second half as receivers struggled to hang on to the ball.
Locksley credited defensive coordinator Brian Williams for making much-needed adjustments, switching to Cover 2 and pressuring the quarterback a few times. Freshman linebacker Jaishawn Barham (St. Frances) had a strong game, totaling five tackles, including one for loss.
“They went tempo a lot in the first drive, and they caught us off guard a bit,” said junior cornerback Tarheeb Still, who had a team-high nine tackles. “Once we settled down, we were pretty good.”
With the victory, Maryland is now two wins away from becoming bowl eligible for the second straight season, which the program hasn’t done since 2013 and 2014. Five of Maryland’s last seven games are against winnable opponents, giving the Terps a chance to win nine games for the first time in 22 years.
Locksley said there’s still more work to do, but he feels the program is where he wants it to be in Year 4 at the helm.
“You are starting to see it come to fruition,” he said.
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