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QB Eric Najarian shows promise and more takeaways from Maryland football’s 27-24 OT loss to Rutgers

Although Saturday’s 27-24 setback against Rutgers at Maryland Stadium in College Park was the regular-season finale, the Maryland football team will get at least one more time to take the field.

The Big Ten announced Sunday a slate of games to coincide with Saturday’s championship game between No. 4 Ohio State and No. 14 Northwestern. However, because the coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every member school, teams from the East Division will not meet teams from the West according to how they finished in the standings as orginially planned.

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The Terps (2-3) placed third in the East and would have tangled with either No. 25 Wisconsin (2-3) or Minnesota (2-3). Instead, they will welcome Michigan State (2-5) in a game at 7:30 p.m. that was originally scheduled for Nov. 21, but was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak that forced Maryland to back out of games against the Buckeyes and the Spartans.

Whether the team will be able to utilize sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, junior inside linebacker Chance Campbell (Calvert Hall), freshman middle linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II and junior cornerback Jakorian Bennett – four starters who sat out Saturday’s loss for medical reasons – remains to be seen.

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Here are four takeaways from Saturday’s game:

If Tagovailoa is out again, maybe all isn’t lost with Eric Najarian under center.

In the offense’s first two series of the second quarter with Najarian, the unit went three-and-out both times, compiling 10 total yards, and the sophomore misfired on all four of his passes.

But beginning with the Terps’ final drive of the half that resulted in a 37-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Joseph Petrino, Najarian completed 13 of 24 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He discovered his rhythm in the second half, showed some toughness standing in the pocket as it collapsed to find junior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. for a 23-yard score in the fourth quarter and exhibited a strong right arm when he scrambled to his left and threw across his body to connect with junior wide receiver Brian Cobbs, who caught the ball at the 20-yard line and ran into the end zone zone to complete a 52-yard scoring strike.

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Najarian does need to work on his pocket presence. He held on to the ball too long on third-and-13 and took a 5-yard sack that forced Petrino to attempt a 50-yard field goal in overtime that he missed, cementing the victory for Rutgers (3-5).

It is also somewhat telling that when the offense had a chance to gain a first down and run more time off the clock with less than four minutes left in regulation, coach Mike Locksley called three consecutive running plays that gained 5 yards and forced a punt, which the Scarlet Knights converted into a game-tying field goal as time expired.

But if Tagovailoa is out again, Locksley expressed his faith in Najarian to lead the offense.

“Coach Locks has kind of instilled in me that they have confidence in me if it had to come to me,” Najarian said. “So that wasn’t really quite a shock to me when I got the word. As the game progressed, it was pretty much what we felt as an offense and we just wanted to get out there and execute.”

The team greatly missed the four absent starters.

As well as Najarian played, one can only wonder how the offense might have fared if Tagovailoa had been available.

In the first quarter, the offense managed just 3.6 yards per play, three first downs and no trips across midfield. Tagovailoa’s accuracy and mobility would have been additional headaches for the Rutgers defense, which might have opened up gaps in the defensive line or the secondary.

Sophomore Fa’Najae Gotay led the defense with 10 tackles in place of Hyppolite, but he also committed a costly personal foul penalty that contributed to a Scarlet Knights touchdown in the third quarter (more on penalties later). The defense also surrendered 240 of Rutgers’ 354 yards in the second half, which is when the presence of Hyppolite, Campbell and Bennett would have fortified that unit.

After the game, Locksley refused to talk about what could have been if the team had played at full strength.

“Obviously when we have all of our players that play well for us, that helps us,” he said. “But we’ve got good enough players and we put good enough players on the field. So it wasn’t our players on the plays that hurt us. It was the lack of discipline to me.”

Speaking of discipline … the penalties remain a problem.

If there is one area Maryland has been consistent in, it is penalties and penalty yards. The team has been flagged more often and lost more yards on penalties than its opponent in all five games this season.

On Saturday, the Terps outdid themselves with season highs in penalties (12) and penalty yards (145), and too many of them occurred at critical points in the game. Gotay’s personal foul gave Rutgers a first down at Maryland’s 42. Five plays later, junior quarterback Artur Sitkowski found junior running back Isaih Pacheco alone along the left sideline for a 20-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead.

In the fourth quarter, the defense made a stop on third-and-2, but was flagged for an illegal substitution that awarded the Scarlet Knights a first down. On the ensuing play, freshman cornerback Tarheeb Still interfered with senior wide receiver Bo Melton, and Rutgers scored on an 18-yard run by Melton along the left sideline.

And on the Scarlet Knights’ last possession of regulation, sophomore defensive tackle Mosiah Nasili-Kite made an illegal block during a fumble recovery (which was later overturned). The Scarlet Knights took advantage and marched down the field to set up junior kicker Valentino Ambrosio’s 39-yard field goal to tie the score at 24 and send the game to overtime.

Gotay acknowledged his own gaffe and the team’s penchant for drawing flags, saying, “You can’t help a good team be better. We’ve just got to put forth the effort on our part to stay disciplined. The game probably would’ve went different.”

The penalties even proved costly in overtime. On the Terps’ only possession of the extra period, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jashaun Jones was called for an illegal blindside block on a first-down run by senior Tayon Fleet-Davis that knocked the Terps back to the 37-yard line, setting up a first-and-22.

Added Locksley: “We had a chance to win the ball game and we gave it away. Rutgers did a great job of taking care of the football and how they played. But penalties, the lack of discipline, they’re just unacceptable.”

After Tagovailoa, Funk might be the second-most valuable player on offense.

When Funk rumbled his way 52 yards to the Rutgers’ 27 on the penultimate play of the third quarter, it would have been difficult to fathom that the fifth-year senior running back would not at least challenge his previous career high of 221 yards set in a 45-44 overtime win against Minnesota on Oct. 30.

But that proved to be Funk’s last play of the day after suffering a sprained shoulder on that run. Instead, Fleet-Davis made his season debut, carrying the ball 10 times for 33 yards.

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Fleet-Davis was decent in place of Funk, but the latter had racked up 182 yards and a 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter on 17 rushes before his injury. He was gashing the interior of the Scarlet Knights defense and would have demanded that Rutgers pay attention to the run, which in turn might have opened up opportunities in the passing game for Najarian, Cobbs (five catches for 99 yards) and freshman Rakim Jarrett (five catches for 39 yards).

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Funk downplayed the notion that his presence in the fourth quarter could have altered the final score.

“You’d like to think that, but everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I had a little sprain in my shoulder. There’s no what-ifs or what could’ve been. It’s either you perform or you don’t. Obviously when I went down, Fleet came in and did his job.”

MICHIGAN STATE@MARYLAND

Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM

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