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QB Taulia Tagovailoa’s big day, timely defense lead Maryland over West Virginia, 30-24, in season opener

Maryland wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, right, celebrates after scoring a touchdown with teammate Chigoziem Okonkwo in the fourth quarter Saturday in College Park.
Maryland wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, right, celebrates after scoring a touchdown with teammate Chigoziem Okonkwo in the fourth quarter Saturday in College Park. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

COLLEGE PARK — After watching Maryland and West Virginia put up a combined 31 points in the first quarter Saturday, the announced 48,811 fans that packed Capital One Field had to wait until the fourth quarter to see some more exciting offense.

With the Terps clinging to 23-21 lead after blowing a 10-point advantage earlier in the afternoon, junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa launched a 60-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Rakim Jarrett to clinch Maryland’s 30-24 season-opening victory over the Mountaineers.

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It’s the Terps’ first victory over their regional rival since 2013.

“It was a hard fought game,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “This game ended up being one of those four-quarter games. They faced adversity throughout the game where we got down and we gave up some big plays on special teams. They kept fighting.”

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The scene before Maryland’s first matchup against West Virginia in six years was electric. Students flooded the streets, and tailgate tents and flags littered the parking lot. Fans from both schools were filled with joy, and rightfully so. It was the first time fans were welcomed back to Capital One Field since 2019 after being kept out of Big Ten stadiums all of last season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Maryland and West Virginia’s opening drives seemed to indicate that the game was going to be a shootout. The Terps quickly marched down the field, as Tagovailoa, the transfer from Alabama and brother of Miami Dolphins star quarterback Tua, completed four consecutive passes before Maryland settled for a 45-yard field by Joseph Petrino.

After the Mountaineers took a 7-3 lead on quarterback Jarret Doege’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Leddie Brown, Tagovailoa (26-for-36 for 332 yards and three touchdowns) responded by launching a 66-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Dontay Demus Jr., which had the student section shaking. Demus, a two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention, recorded a career-high 133 receiving yards.

With three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Tagovalioa managed to avoid pressure up the middle and dump a screen pass to tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, who raced into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown, extending the Terps’ lead to 17-7. It was Okonkwo’s first touchdown since Oct. 19, 2019, after he sat out the 2020 season with myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle).

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“I think [offensive line] did a good job of giving me time with the play action passes,” Tagovailoa said. “The receivers ran great routes and made the throws easier for me.”

West Virginia closed out the first quarter with a 2-yard touchdown run by Brown, which was set up by Winston Wright Jr.’s 98-yard kick return.

Suddenly, the offenses stalled. After Brown’s second touchdown, a 9-yard run, gave the Mountaineers a 21-17 lead with 11:30 remaining in the second quarter, West Virginia failed to move the ball inside Maryland’s 20 the rest of the quarter.

Maryland coach Mike Locksley, center, poses with Terps quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, right, and his older brother Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins on Saturday.
Maryland coach Mike Locksley, center, poses with Terps quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, right, and his older brother Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins on Saturday. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Tagovailoa was sacked twice in the second quarter, and the offense couldn’t convert after an interception by junior safety Nick Cross or a fumble recovery on a muffed punt by Wright. The Terps’ best drive came during the final two minutes when Tagovalioa connected with Demus on back-to-back passes to put Maryland in scoring position. The Terps were forced to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Petrino after the Mountaineers halted running back Tayon Fleet-Davis at the 3-yard-line on third-and-goal.

The Terps struggled to make plays on third down, as they were 3-for-11 on third-down conversions in the first half.

Maryland’s defense opened the second half with a pair of third-down sacks by defensive end Sam Okuayinonu. With under four minutes remaining in the third, junior defensive tackle Mosiah Nasili-Kite batted down Doege’s pass, forcing West Virginia to punt for the third consecutive drive. Just when the Mountaineers reached the Terps’ side of the field during the final seconds of the third quarter, Terps freshman linebacker Branden Jennings forced a fumble that was recovered by senior defensive lineman Lawtez Rogers.

Maryland recorded 192 totals yards while averaging 9.6 yards per play in the first quarter but was held to 110 yards in the second and third quarters.

“I mean, we felt like a lot of times we’re beating ourselves,” Tagovailoa said. “We wasn’t really disciplined at the time.”

The Terps’ best drive after the first quarter came during the early stages of the fourth. Running back Isaiah Jacobs rushed for a first down before Tagovailoa threw an 11-yard pass to Demus, which set up a 25-yard field goal by Petrino that gave the Terps a 23-21 lead.

Wright’s 48-yard kick return put the Mountaineers in scoring position, but they failed to take advantage, as Doege threw his second interception to cornerback Jakorian Bennett in the back of the end zone. The Terps made West Virginia pay for its fourth turnover when Tagovalioa aired his third touchdown pass to Jarrett, a former five-star recruit who finished with six catches for 122 yards.

“We liked that play in the coverage they were running,” said Jarrett, who flipped his commitment from LSU to Maryland in 2019. “They were running it all game, and we were just trying to set it up for the perfect time.”

After West Virginia settled for a 23-yard field goal to cut the deficit to six points, Fleet-Davis sealed the victory with a 53-yard run deep into Mountaineers territory.

“We got those first downs when we needed it,” Locksley said. “It was great to see the offense finish on the field, controlling the line of scrimmage.”

HOWARD@MARYLAND

Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM

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