Taulia Tagovailoa donned a team-issued collared t-shirt, shorts and Crocs while reporters circled him at Maryland football’s media day in August.
He was weeks away from swapping the loungewear for a football uniform but was confident the upcoming season would be his best. He said he’d consider it unsuccessful if it ended without a Big Ten championship.
That goal is now unattainable. The message of competing for conference titles that once echoed throughout the program quieted as losses piled up. Tagovailoa knows he fell short of that ultimate achievement and wrestled with that realization as his final season winds down.
But with two games remaining, the next a bout with conference heavyweight No. 2 Michigan in the Terps’ final home game, the quarterback can erase the frustrations that festered during that midseason collapse by delivering the signature win the program has been starving for.
“Very few times in your career do you get to have what I call a breakthrough type of game,” coach Michael Locksley said.
Maryland has yet to find a victory of the magnitude Saturday’s would be since it hired Locksley before the 2019 season. The Terps haven’t beaten the Wolverines since 2014, and their three losses since Locksley was hired have been by an average of 26.3 points.
Last year’s matchup was the closest Maryland came to passing one of the conference’s top teams under the fifth-year coach. Tai Felton fumbled the opening kickoff and Michigan went up 7-0 seconds into the game, but the Terps overcame that disastrous start and matched the Wolverines the rest of the way in a seven-point defeat.
Tagovailoa, who was removed late in the game after a big hit, was intercepted a season-high two times and threw for just 207 passing yards.
Losses to ranked Big Ten teams have become all too familiar under Locksley — Maryland is 0-14 in such games since hiring the coach.
The Terps have already let two opportunities to find that landmark win slip away this season. They collapsed in the second half in a 37-17 loss at Ohio State and were never close in a 51-15 clobbering to Penn State. Saturday is their last chance to establish themselves in a conference they’ve been in for 10 years but are seemingly yet to settle into.
“It would definitely be a program-changing win,” Felton said. “It would be the breakthrough I feel like we’ve needed.”
This season’s matchup will look different from previous ones. Michigan will be without coach Jim Harbaugh, whom the Big Ten suspended for the remainder of the regular season amid a sign-stealing investigation.
Harbaugh was scheduled to attend a court hearing Friday that could’ve granted him a restraining order nullifying the suspension. Instead, the coach and conference agreed Thursday to close the investigation and uphold the suspension.
Harbaugh wasn’t present for the Wolverines’ win over Penn State last week but has been with the team in practice leading up to Saturday. The Terps aren’t preparing for Michigan differently with Harbaugh absent but did adjust how they relay signs to the field, Locksley said.
“It really could be a breakthrough win,” cornerback Tarheeb Still said. “It just all comes down to us, how we’re gonna handle it.”
Locksley’s fifth and Tagovailoa’s fourth seasons with the Terps didn’t meet expectations, but a win Saturday could prevent 2023 from feeling like a waste. Maryland would finally announce its arrival in the conference and Tagovailoa would get the defining moment that’s missing from his otherwise illustrious career in his final home game
“A big-time win like this would be a good confidence booster for the Maryland program for years to come,” Tagovailoa said. “We gotta go do it.”
Turnovers have come in bunches for Terps
Maryland’s defense has forced 18 turnovers this season. Ten of those have come in just two games — wins over Michigan State and Nebraska.
Tarheeb Still best exemplifies that trend. Of his five interceptions this season, three came in back-to-back games in September. Then, he added two interceptions against the Cornhuskers on Saturday.
The cornerback noticed he began to hunt for takeaways more after they came in spurts earlier this season, a focus that at times resulted in subpar coverage.
“I was getting my mind fixated on interceptions,” Still said. “But then talking to [cornerbacks coach Henry Baker] a lot, he tells me, ‘You can’t really think about picks. You have to think about just doing your job and then playing good coverage … If the ball comes your way and you have a chance to pick it, that’s your reward.’”
Maryland’s defense had just two turnovers over a five-week stretch before exploding for five takeaways against Nebraska. That’ll be difficult to maintain against Michigan, which has the second-fewest turnovers in the Big Ten this season.