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Four things we learned from Maryland football’s abbreviated 2020 season

The 2020 season for the Maryland football team may be remembered more for the final game it didn’t play than the ones it did.

Sure, the Terps’ fourth-quarter rally from a 17-point deficit to outlast Minnesota in a 45-44 overtime decision on Oct. 30 was a thrilling development for a program smarting from a 43-3 humbling at Northwestern six days before. And a 35-19 rout of archrival Penn State — which had easily won the previous four meetings by a combined score of 201-20 — on Nov. 7 began to draw eyeballs nationally to the school.

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But Maryland’s campaign ended Thursday afternoon with the announcement that the team was forced to cancel Saturday’s home game against Michigan State for the second time in as many months due to 15 players and six staff members testing positive for the coronavirus between Dec. 10-16 with three more potential positives cases pending polymerase chain reaction tests.

That development marked the fourth such cancellation for the Terps (2-3 overall and in the Big Ten), who lost games against then-No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 14 and the Spartans on Nov. 21 because of a COVID-19 outbreak within their program and Michigan on Dec. 5 due to coronavirus issues plaguing the Wolverines.

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Coach Mike Locksley had frequently peppered his media sessions with references to facing two opponents every week: a Big Ten rival school and COVID-19.

Here are four things we learned in the 2020 season about the Terps:

The offense found its quarterback of the future in Taulia Tagovailoa.

The Tagovailoa era opened horrifically (14-of-25 for 94 yards and three interceptions) against Northwestern, but the sophomore blossomed into the quarterback Locksley envisioned when he convinced the younger brother of Miami Dolphins starter Tua Tagovailoa to transfer from Alabama.

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Tagovailoa was fantastic in victories over Minnesota and Penn State and despite a poor showing in a 27-11 loss at then-No. 12 Indiana on Nov. 28, finished the regular season ranked third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (252.8) and fourth in completion percentage (. 615).

Redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre did little to enhance his candidacy when he started Saturday’s 27-24 overtime loss to Rutgers. He was pulled in favor of sophomore walk-on Eric Najarian, who fared much better after a shaky start. But the offense runs more smoothly and is exponentially more dangerous when Tagovailoa is zipping accurate passes to junior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. and freshman Rakim Jarrett or scrambling out of the pocket for first downs and touchdowns.

Locksley said he appreciated how Tagovailoa relentlessly sought to improve himself mentally and physically and said the quarterback was beginning to assert himself more among his teammates. For his part, Tagovailoa said he cared only about team success, not personal accolades.

“Every game, I’m just trying to go out there and do my job and limit the mistakes and just lead my team to victory,” he said Dec. 8, just four days before getting scratched from the game against Rutgers for “medical reasons.” “Whether I do as good as I did in the Minnesota or Penn State games or if I’m handing off the ball, whatever it takes for my team to win, that’s all that matters.”

The defense should be the next priority.

As improved as the offense looked, the defense was decent at best and downright dreadful at worst.

In five games, the unit ranked 11th in the Big Ten in points allowed per game (32.0) and yards allowed per game (430.0). The Terps were most generous team in the conference in rushing (230.0 yards per game) and surrendered 14 touchdowns on the ground, which was tied for third-highest mark.

The defense was much better against the pass, ranking third in the league in yards allowed per game (200.0) and opponents’ completion percentage (. 564). Maryland also gave up only six passing touchdowns albeit in a smaller sample size than many of their Big Ten rivals.

The secondary appears solid with sophomore safety Nick Cross and freshman cornerback Tarheeb Still. But there’s a reason why 12 of the incoming 21 recruits play defense, including six along the defensive line, and why all four of the four-star prospects — defensive end Demeioun Robinson, outside linebacker Branden Jennings and defensive tackles Tommy Akingbesote and Taizse Johnson — are on that side of the ball.

“I think you can tell by the names we announced our focus for this season was on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the front seven,” Locksley said Wednesday. “I firmly believe you need to build your program from the trenches. Last year, we signed six offensive linemen and felt like we took care of getting started with building that side of the ball, and adding quality depth this year, we took care of the defensive side of the ball and defensive line.”

Stability could be an important asset.

Assuming there is an offseason of relative calm for the team, next season will be Locksley’s third as the head coach — the first to enjoy that kind of longevity since Randy Edsall helmed the Terps from 2011-15.

That illustrates the turmoil the program has endured in recent memory and introduced a revolving door of sorts for coaches who had their own visions of how to build and fortify Maryland into a contender in the Big Ten.

If Locksley and his staff remain intact for next fall, they should be light years ahead in terms of developing a rapport with their players and game plans that accentuate strengths and disguise weaknesses.

Locksley has frequently commented that the coronavirus pandemic forced him to learn that he needs to be flexible and adaptable as a coach. To that end, players like Tagovailoa and sophomore defensive tackle Mosiah Nasili-Kite praised Locksley for letting his proverbial hair down on the day Michigan canceled its game against the Terps and playing music and providing live commentary during that day’s practice to lift the players’ morale.

Locksley acknowledged the significance of the coaches being a consistent presence for the players.

“That’s what we wanted to go when we came in here a year ago, to stabilize the program and build a really strong foundation,” he said Wednesday. “When you have three different head coaches as this class has been through and we’ve talked about the number of assistants that have come through the program during their four to five years in our program, it definitely takes its toll, and I know for our future, it’s really important that we keep players here.”

A bowl appearance might not be too far away.

Yes, that may sound like a hex of epic proportions, but the building blocks for potential success are there.

The offense is headlined by an emerging quarterback, a talented wide receiving corps and a sturdy offensive line. The defense is anchored by a diverse secondary, a solid inside linebacking group and an incoming aid for the defensive line and outside linebacker positions.

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And if you’re looking for a Big Ten comparison, look at Indiana. In coach Tom Allen’s first two years in 2017 and 2018, the Hoosiers went 5-7 overall and 2-7 in the conference.

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In Allen’s third season, the program went 8-5 and 5-4 and lost to Tennessee by one point in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. This fall, Indiana is 6-1, ranked No. 7 in the most recent Associated Press rankings, and poised to play in another bowl.

And dreams of a bowl appearance were already dancing in the heads of Maryland players, who had hoped a win against Michigan State on Saturday would draw an invite.

“It’s a good start for us,” redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Durell Nchami said Tuesday of taking aim at a bowl. “It’s a good start for building our program and how we want it to be built. We can really change the future of our program by getting this thing built.”

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