Maryland football senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis had to call someone.
After Davis carved up Rutgers’ defense for 152 rushing yards and two touchdowns to help the Terps beat the Scarlet Knights, 40-16, and become bowl eligible for the first time in five years, he dialed the first person that popped up on his phone.
“I was talking to my girlfriend,” Davis said with a huge grin on his face. “I was letting her know that we finally made it and I couldn’t believe it.”
For Davis and the 25 seniors on Maryland’s roster, Saturday’s win at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey, provided a sigh of relief. After years of being belittled by the upper echelon of the Big Ten Conference, injuries, quarterback changes, the death of Jordan McNair and the reports of a toxic culture that led to the firing of former coach DJ Durkin, the seniors were able to lay the foundation for the future of the program.
“I came here to build a program that our former players and all of our fans could be really proud of,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “This is just one step. We talked about taking the next step, and that’s being bowl eligible. Now, the next step for us is to build upon what we’ve established. I love the way our seniors are leaving a foundation of what leadership looks like as we bring in the right kind of players.”
Maybe there was some magic flowing through the Terps’ scripted uniforms because Davis had his best performance of the season.
With Maryland (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) holding on to a 26-16 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, Davis ran up the middle for a 13-yard touchdown to make it 33-16. On third-and-5 from Rutgers’ 21-yard line, Davis rushed for 19 yards, and on the following play he crossed the goal line for a 2-yard touchdown that solidified Maryland’s win.
“It was pretty much Coach [Locksley] in the back of my head, saying this is playoff football,” Davis said. “I knew for a fact I didn’t want this to be my last game. I just wanted to make sure that no matter what I did, we didn’t lose this game because of me. I wanted to make sure that if it was my last game, I left it all out there.”
As Davis ran all over the field, junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa continued to set Maryland records. A week after breaking the program’s single-season completions record, he broke the program’s single-season passing yards record while recording four total touchdowns.
Tagovailoa, the brother of former Alabama star and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, went 21-for-30 with 312 passing yards. He has seven 300-yard games this season, tying a Big Ten Conference record.
Tagovailoa’s 18-yard pass to senior receiver Brian Cobbs late in the second quarter set the Maryland record for the most passing yards in a single season, surpassing Scott Milanovich, who tallied 3,499 yards in 1993. Tagovailoa has 3,595 yards this season.
The Terps couldn’t ask for a better opening drive from their quarterback. Maryland entered the game as one of the worst teams in the country on third down, but facing third-and-9, Tagovailoa threw a 20-yard pass down the middle to Cobbs. A few plays later, Tagovailoa threw a short pass to Davis for a 10-yard gain to convert another third down.
Maryland’s offensive line provided Tagovailoa enough time to throw a 25-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Corey Dyches (two catches for 36 yards) to give the Terps a 7-0 lead with 11:42 remaining in the first quarter.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, Tagovailoa stayed hot. With Maryland facing a second-and-5, he rolled to the right and threw a pass to Cobbs, who ran down the field for a 38-yard touchdown.
Cobbs, who finished with 86 yards on four receptions, knew before the game that he was going to have a big day. After pregame warmups, Cobbs brought the team together and yelled “I got y’all. Do y’all got me?”
“Everyone yelled back, ‘They got me,’” Cobbs said. “Just coming out playing with confidence as a team was the biggest thing.”
Maryland’s special teams continued to struggle, however. Senior kicker Joseph Petrino’s extra-point attempt was blocked and scooped up by Rutgers defensive back Kessawn Abraham, who ran 85 yards for a 2-point conversion that cut the Terps’ lead to 13-2 with 6:32 remaining in the first.
But the foundation for the future shined bright. Sophomore receiver Rakim Jarrett showcased his potential as a No. 1 target, totaling 111 yards on seven catches in one of his best performances this season. Meanwhile freshman Colby McDonald provided a glimpse of the running back position, rushing for 99 yards on 15 carries.
Leading by two scores in the second quarter, the Terps looked for more. On third-and-20, Tagovailoa launched a 26-yard pass to Jarrett to set Maryland up at Rutgers’ 25. McDonald rushed for 15 yards before Tagovailoa scored a 10-yard rushing touchdown to extend Maryland’s lead to 20-2.
After Rutgers opened the second half with an eight-play, 70-yard touchdown drive, the Terps responded. With 11:34 remaining in the third quarter, Tagovailoa lofted a pass to Jarrett, who ran for a 16-yard gain. That set up a 11-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to Dyches to make it 26-9.
Maryland’s defense came up big throughout the game, holding the Scarlet Knights to 2-for-11 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down. With under two minutes remaining in the first quarter and Rutgers (5-7, 2-7 Big Ten) facing a fourth-and-goal from Maryland’s 3-yard line, the Terps forced Scarlet Knights quarterback Noah Vedral to throw an incomplete pass.
“We put [defensive coordinator] Brian Stewart up in the [press] box. [Co-defensive coordinator] Brian Williams became a lot more involved,” Locksley said. “I thought it was overall a great effort by our defensive staff and the players.”
During Rutgers’ first drive of the second quarter, sophomore defensive lineman Isaac Bunyun tipped Vedral’s pass on third-and-6 and senior cornerback Jakorian Bennett was able to corral the interception. With under 12 minutes remaining in the second quarter, Bunyun pressured Vedral on third down and forced him to throw an incomplete pass.
In the middle of the second quarter, Rutgers tried to find a spark by going for it on fourth-and-7 from Maryland’s 36. However, Vedral’s pass to receiver Shameen Jones was broken up by sophomore linebacker Gereme Spraggins.
“Rutgers was a dangerous team that really [relied] on some of the trick plays that gave them opportunities down the road,” Locksley said. “We had to play with great eye focus and discipline. I thought we did a really good job in situational defense. Our guys made the plays when we needed them to be made.”
Trailing 33-16 in the fourth quarter, Rutgers faced a crucial fourth down at the Terps’ 1. Quarterback Johnny Langan, who ran for a touchdown in the third quarter, was stopped short of the goal line by Maryland’s swarming defensive line.
“It was a crucial moment in the game,” senior defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu said. “We pride ourselves in our run defense, and we just had to show it right there on that fourth down.”
The entire Maryland team stood in front of the goal post after the game to take a photo. Locksley stood in the middle like a proud father, knowing his players have more football in store after battling a regular season filled with adversity.
“This was going to be my Christmas gift to them,” Locksley said. “If they came up here and took victory, we [would] go stand on that goal post then send them home with a nice victory picture. This is the end of our  season. But also gives us the start of the [2022 season], which is the bowl prep.”