As Maryland football unraveled down the stretch in Saturday’s loss, so did its quarterback.
Taulia Tagovailoa threw an interception and lost a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Terps’ fourth straight defeat.
The pair of giveaways — and Maryland’s inability to force any of their own — have become too familiar during its losing streak. The Terps’ turnover luck has dried up and their postseason hopes are following suit.
“Right now, we’re in the gutter,” linebacker Donnell Brown said after the loss to Penn State.
Saturday was Maryland’s most glaring disparity in turnover margin this season. Tagovailoa’s pair of giveaways, a Tai Felton fumble and a Billy Edwards Jr. interception gave the Nittany Lions four additional possessions.
Felton’s gaffe killed a promising Terps possession after Penn State’s first touchdown. The receiver caught a 30-yard pass three plays earlier as the offense crossed midfield and threatened to answer. After a nine-yard gain, Felton lost the ball on the tackle and gave it back to the Nittany Lions, who went up 14-0.
Last week, a similar error cost Maryland a chance to extend its early lead when Tagovailoa dropped the ball in the first quarter. The Terps led 7-0 at that point. Northwestern tied it three plays later in an eventual six-point loss.
“Those are the type of plays in critical situations where we’ve gotta be able to execute at a better, higher rate,” coach Michael Locksley said.
The Terps forced 12 turnovers in their first five games — eight interceptions and four fumbles — tied for the FBS lead at the time. The takeaways powered a defense that hadn’t allowed more than 20 points through the team’s 5-0 start.
In the four losses since, Maryland has taken the ball away just twice.
The Terps have allowed an average of 37 points in each of their losses. They’ve given the ball away nine times, taken it just once and haven’t had a positive turnover differential since their Sept. 23 win against Michigan State.
“When you get behind the way we were, we tried to force some things,” Locksley said. “We just can’t abandon our training.”
Maryland works extensively on ball security drills for offensive players and techniques for attacking the ball in the air and punching it loose for defenders. Defensive backs go against receivers, inside linebackers battle tight ends and outside linebackers face running backs in a seven-to-eight minute period each day at practice. The drills place emphasis on taking the ball away.
But safety Beau Brade said the Terps’ struggles have trickled down to those sessions. The defense hasn’t taken the ball away from the offense in those drills as much as it once did, the safety said.
“That’s the one we gotta focus on,” Brade said. “When a ball carrier has the ball, we gotta punch it out. When the ball’s in the air, we gotta go attack it.”
Without turnovers, Maryland’s defense has failed to slow down Big Ten teams. It gave up 5.8 yards per play and 33 points to Northwestern, an offense playing with a backup quarterback. Then came 51 points and four passing touchdowns from Penn State and Drew Allar.
“It’s a little bit of luck and it’s a little bit of execution,” Locksley said of his team’s turnover drought on Thursday.
Maryland’s takeaways disappeared along with its wins. Hitting the six-victory mark to become bowl eligible is no longer certain. The Terps have been on the precipice of that benchmark win for more than a month and have yet to break through.
“We’re really hungry and thirsty for that win, but it’s just hard,” Brown said. “Winning in this league is hard.”