COLLEGE PARK — It was Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa’s world, and Kent State was living in it Saturday afternoon.
The junior signal-caller laid waste to the Golden Flashes defense, throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-16 victory at Capital One Field. Maryland is 4-0 and undefeated in nonconference play for the first time since 2016.
“Taulia, man, that kid is special,” fifth-year senior defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu said. “I felt like his first year here, he was taking off a little bit. But now, he’s just confident. He’s making this right reads and utilizing other weapons around him. To see how he’s able to spread the ball around, manage the clock, and put points on the board. I’m happy he’s on my side.”
Through Maryland’s first four games of the season, Tagovailoa, a second-year starter who transferred from Alabama, has impressed with his decision-making in the pocket. But during Maryland’s first drive of the game, Tagovailoa made his first costly mistake when his pass bounced off sophomore receiver Rakim Jarrett and into the hands of Kent State cornerback Keith Sherald Jr. Tagovailoa’s first interception of the season led to the Golden Flashes (1-3) kicking a 35-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
From that point on, Tagovailoa was locked in, as he finished 31-for-41 (75.5%) with completions to 12 different receivers while taking advantage of Kent State’s defense, which allowed 645 passing yards in its first three games.
After the interception, Tagovailoa threw a screen pass to running back Tayon Fleet-Davis, who broke loose for a 20-yard gain. Tagovailoa, who has four 300-yard performances in his eight starts for Maryland, then launched a 33-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Dontay Demus Jr. that gave the Terps a 7-3 lead with 5:25 to go in the first quarter. Demus, a senior, finished with four catches for 108 yards.
“I’m just happy to see [Tagovailoa] have success in this offense,” Demus said. “He’s put in a lot of work, late nights and early mornings.”
After running back Challen Faamatau caught an 11-yard pass and rushed for 19 yards during the closing seconds of the first quarter, Tagovailoa opened the second by lofting a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jarrett for the former five-star recruit’s only catch of the day. On Maryland’s next drive, Demus sprinted past Kent State’s secondary for a 64-yard completion before Fleet-Davis powered into the end zone for a 6-yard score, which put the Terps up 14-6 with 12:03 remaining in the second quarter.
Fleet-Davis, a redshirt senior, finished with seven carries for 60 yards and two touchdowns and added three catches for 33 yards.
Tagovailoa continued his strong performance in the third quarter, when he threw a 9-yard pass to Corey Dyches with 5:21 remaining for the sophomore tight end’s first career touchdown.
“[Tagovailoa] really showed command,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “He’s been incredibly efficient at running what we want to run on offense and I think we’ll continue to get better.”
For years, Maryland has struggled to find stability at the quarterback position. Whether it was injuries or poor play, the Terps watched too many players struggle to find their footing. According to writer Patrick Stevens, Maryland had gone 82 consecutive games without a 300-yard passer before Tagovailoa threw for 394 in a 45-44 overtime win over Minnesota last October.
Tagovailoa has not only provided stability, but a glimmer of hope. Tagovailoa, the brother of Miami Dolphins quarterback and former Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa, is already tied for third in program history in career 300-yard games (four) and tied for fourth in single-season 300-yard games (three). The last Maryland quarterback to pass for 300 yards three times in a season was Scott Milanovich in 1994.
He’s been helped by a talented receiving corps, too, led by potential NFL wideouts Demus and Jarrett. Saturday marked the first time Maryland had 11 or more pass-catchers since Nov. 7, 2015, against Indiana.
Tagovailoa has not only answered the question of how he would fare after a full offseason in College Park, but has given the Terps some optimism heading into back-to-back matchups with No. 5 Iowa and No. 10 Ohio State.
“I’m not even sure if he knows his stats,” Fleet-Davis said. “He’s just going out, playing the game every weekend. I appreciate him for that.”
Despite the victory, Maryland might have suffered a significant loss on defense. Terps freshman linebacker Branden Jennings exited the game in the first quarter with an apparent leg injury. Jennings was going after Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum (19-for-35 for 308 yards and one touchdown) before falling awkwardly to the ground.
Jennings laid on the field for a moment before trainers helped him walk off the field and into the locker room. Jennings, a former four-star recruit, has played a major role in the Terps defense, leading the team in total tackles heading into Saturday’s game. Locksley did not have an update on Jennings’ status after the game.
Despite piling up 458 yards of total offense, the Golden Flashes only scored on four of their 13 possessions. Maryland forced a turnover on downs four times, sacked Crum five times and forced a fumble. The Terps also held Kent State to 150 rushing yards on 3.2 yards per carry.
The Terps struggled with penalties again, however, picking up nine for 120 yards.
“We could have played better, but as I told my team, winning is hard,” Locksley said.
NO. 5 IOWA@MARYLAND
Friday, 8 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 105.7 FM