The Maryland football team’s 27-11 setback at No. 12 Indiana on Saturday might have been frustrating to fans wishing for an upset, but it didn’t exactly register as a surprise.
Since 2015, the program has faced 25 ranked opponents and lost 22 times. The three wins over that span: against No. 23 Texas in season openers in 2017 and 2018 and No. 21 Syracuse on Sept. 7, 2019, Mike Locksley’s second game as the Terps head coach.
Since joining the Big Ten for the 2014 season, Maryland is 0-24 against ranked conference opponents. The last time the school upended a ranked conference opponent was Nov. 27, 2010, when the Terps belonged in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a Ralph Friedgen-coached squad stunned No. 21 North Carolina State, 38-31, in the regular-season finale.
Here are four takeaways from Saturday’s game.
The game’s turning point was a safety.
Trailing only 7-3 midway through the third quarter, Maryland was very much in the game, especially after senior safety Antwaine Richardson stopped junior running back Stevie Scott III inches short of the Terps’ 4-yard line on fourth-and-2.
But on a run-pass option on the very next play, sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa pulled the ball away from freshman running back Peny Boone and was tackled by sophomore outside linebacker D.K. Bonhomme in the end zone for a safety. After Maryland (2-2) punted the ball, the Hoosiers marched 53 yards in eight plays for a touchdown and 2-point conversion that extended their lead to 17-3 with 3:44 left in the quarter.
Locksley, who called the safety “a tremendous buzzkill,” said Tagovailoa erred in not noticing that Bonhomme was focused solely on coming after him.
“I don’t understand why the ball wasn’t given and why the read-key was able to tackle our quarterback,” Locksley said. “Those are the things I’ve got to watch on film to have a better understanding. But it’s pretty simple math that the guy that tackled him was the guy that we were reading. So we either misread it or didn’t pay attention or didn’t execute it the way it should have been executed, and to me, that goes back on me as the coach to make sure that the quarterback is prepared the way he need to be prepared to execute our offensive system wherever it takes place. So it definitely was disappointing to give away points like that after our defense did a good job of kind of anchoring down inside the red zone area there.”
Tagovailoa accepted blame for the bad decision.
“He gave me the pull-read, and I pulled it, and he made a nice play on coming out of it,” he said. “Those types of plays, I’ve just got to hand it off and not do too much. So that’s my fault. It’s something I can learn from.”
Tagovailoa looked like the quarterback from the season opener.
Tagovailoa completed 17 of 36 passes for 241 yards and one touchdown, a far cry from his 14-for-25, 94-yard showing in the team’s 43-3 humbling at Northwestern on Oct. 24. But just as he did against the Wildcats, Tagovailoa threw three interceptions against Indiana (5-1).
What was especially galling was that Tagovailoa lacked the accuracy and touch he had displayed in wins against Minnesota and Penn State. On the offense’s opening drive, he wildly overthrew junior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. all alone in the back right corner of the end zone on third-and-9, and the gaffe was compounded by sophomore kicker Joseph Petrino missing a 29-yard field-goal attempt wide left.
Tagovailoa’s first interception occurred when he threw behind Demus on a seam route that would have resulted in a touchdown if he had continued to lead the wideout into the end zone. Instead, Demus, reaching back for the ball, tipped it in the air and sophomore cornerback Tiawan Mullen pulled in his third interception of the season.
Tagovailoa overthrew several other teammates on simple curls and crossing routes, suggesting that the program’s three-week layoff spurred by a coronavirus outbreak had affected his timing with his receivers. Tagovailoa acknowledged the significance of missing the early chances to Demus.
“That was just my fault,” he said. “That was just the basics, and I’ve got to stick to the basics and follow my throw, not fading off or trying to aim it. Those opportunities are important. You never know when you’re going to have that back. So us as a football team, we want to start fast.”
Locksley said he wanted to review the film before offering a full critique of Tagovailoa’s outing, but said there is much work to be done before Saturday’s road game against Michigan (2-4).
“On offense, we kind of kept starting and stopping, and I’ve got to figure out kind of what’s going on with our quarterback and make sure that we’re clean with everything that we’re asking him to do and make sure that he is very knowledgeable with where exactly we want him to go with the ball in certain situations,” he said. “We’ll get that stuff corrected.”
The defense gave the team a chance.
Statistically, the unit surrendered an alarming 234 rushing yards to the Hoosiers, as Scott ran for three touchdowns and 80 yards on 24 carries and freshman Tim Baldwin Jr. gained 106 yards on 16 attempts.
But in the second half, the defense was at the mercy of an unproductive offense that couldn’t extend drives or protect the ball and had asked the unit to bail the team out. In the final two quarters, the offense went three-and-out twice, gave up the aforementioned safety to end one possession and had an interception to end another series before Tagovailoa threw a 43-yard jump ball to Demus for a meaningless touchdown with 92 seconds left in the game.
Before redshirt sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. left in the third quarter with a right leg injury, the defense had limited him to six of 19 passing for 84 yards and two rushing attempts for 29 yards. In a 42-35 loss to No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 21, Penix completed 27 of 51 passes for 491 yards and five touchdowns.
Locksley exonerated the defense, instead singling out the offense’s inability to move the ball. Indiana ran 72 plays to Maryland’s 61.
“I thought we put our defense in some tough situations today with how we executed on offense and all the turnovers and the lack of execution on third down that it became a point of diminishing returns for our defense,” he said. “We had them out on the field way too long.”
Richardson declined to criticize the offense, saying: “The offense put us in situations, but at the end of the day, that’s our job. We’re the defense. So if we do, like today, have a turnover, we have to go out there and stop them. It was a lot of football that we played out there, but at the end of the day, who wouldn’t love being out there on the field?”
The coronavirus outbreak had an impact.
The Terps were clearly rusty and off their game because of the outbreak. They also were forced to play without 23 players who had tested positive for COVID-19 since Nov. 11, and several of those absences were significant.
The offense went without four starters in redshirt senior running Jake Funk, the team’s leading rusher; redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, the third-leading receiver in yards and catches; senior center Johnny Jordan and junior right guard Marcus Minor; and freshman wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, who ranked second on the team in yards and receptions, was out.
On defense, sophomore safety Nick Cross, the only player with an interception, sack and forced fumble, and freshman cornerback Tarheeb Still, the leader in pass breakups, were unavailable.
It’s nearly impossible to ascertain how those players could have affected the outcome of the game, and Locksley wasn’t about to get into what-if scenarios.
“Yeah, we’ve got 23 guys that didn’t play, but we’re not the first team to have to deal with this,” he said. “This is by no means a surprising [development]. We’re going to play with the guys that are available to us, and it’s just the type of mentality we’re going to have as a team. To lose the type of players that we didn’t have out there, it’s not about that as much as it is, we had good enough players out there today that have to be prepared the right way to go out and execute. That’s just the day and age we live in when we’re dealing with COVID.”
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM