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Maryland Offensive Player to Watch: Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa

Tagovailoa has looked both outstanding and overwhelmed at different points during the 2021 season.

Maryland’s best QB in years is looking to help push the program to the upper echelon of the Big Ten
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The Buckeyes are back home this week and facing a very different opponent than the Rutgers team that they took down 52-13 last Saturday in New Jersey. The Maryland Terrapins are coming to Columbus likely lacking in confidence, but with a team that is well-positioned to finish the regular season with a winning record for the first time since 2014 — and potentially earn their first bowl victory since 2010. They were boat-raced by a top-five team in Iowa, but got out of the gates quickly by starting 4-0. How they respond against the Buckeyes will speak volumes about the outlook for the rest of their season.

Prior to the Iowa game, Maryland was averaging 37.2 points per game and only giving up 14.2. The Hawkeyes proceeded to torch the Terrapins, so now the question becomes, was September all smoke and mirrors for Mike Locksley’s bunch — or is this team the real deal, looking to bounce back from a terrible game? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle…

We’ll get to the defense later in the week, but I am less inclined to believe in their season-long success. Yes, they finished the first month of the season as a top-10 scoring defense, but they were outside the top-40 in total yards and benefitted from opponents coughing up two turnovers per game. Maryland’s September schedule consisted of West Virginia, Howard, Illinois, and Kent State — none of which posed a great threat on offense.

West Virginia is averaging 21 points per game against FBS opponents, Howard is an FCS team, and Illinois and Kent State both finished September outside the top-100 in points scored per game. The Terps’ defense certainly did not look impenetrable against Iowa, so I anticipate the Buckeyes being able to move the ball on Saturday.

Maryland’s offense is what should keep them in a lot of games this year. I say “should” because the Iowa game may have broken their quarterback and erased all of the confidence that he and the team had built up during the first month of the season. It was ugly. But I think Iowa is going to make plenty of teams look ugly this year. The Hawkeyes have one of the best defenses in the country, so I don’t want to be a prisoner of the moment when evaluating Maryland.

Despite what we saw last Friday night, I think the Terps have a number of more-than-capable playmakers, and their scheme is one that could give the OSU defense some problems. They spread you out and air it out, giving Taulia Tagovailoa plenty of opportunity to make big plays. He had a nightmare performance against Iowa, but you can’t discount how good he looked during the entire month of September. Tagovailoa is looking to prove that he is more than just hype and a name, which makes him this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.

The brother of former Alabama, and current Miami Dolphins quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, the Maryland quarterback is looking to pave his own road to stardom. Once a unanimous four-star recruit, the younger Tagovailoa originally enrolled at Alabama in 2019. After his freshman season, and Tua’s departure for the NFL, he was left with a decision: try to follow in the footsteps of big brother, or join a familiar face and a coach who helped recruit him in the Big Ten. Tagovailoa chose the latter and ended up at Maryland with Locksley.

Like the rest of college football - and the world in general — 2020 was a challenge for Tagovailoa. In four starts, he threw just as many interceptions as touchdowns (7), and the team finished the season with a losing record (2-3). However, there were bright spots and flashes of potential. In back-to-back games against Minnesota and Penn St, the young QB passed for a total of 676 yards. He etched his name in the record books with the Minnesota game, throwing for 394 yards and three touchdowns and adding another 59 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He earned multiple POTW awards for that performance, and announced himself to the college football world — or at least those who were unfamiliar with his family pedigree and/or history at Alabama.

2021 started off very well for the Terrapins, and Tagovailoa has been the engine that makes them go. I touched on the defense earlier, and while their play exceeded expectations to begin the season, this team is all about offense. Locksley deploys a spread system with plenty of tempo and motion, and it is one that has been successful at the highest level (of college football). Locksley was the co-OC for Alabama during its 2017 National Championship run, and called offensive plays exclusively when they returned to the CFP a year later. Every great play caller needs a quarterback to pull the trigger and make the right reads, and Tagovailoa has proven more than capable of doing so… Iowa game withstanding.

Maryland is 23rd in total offense per game, boosted by the 13th ranked passing attack. Tagovailoa is chucking it for over 300 yards per game, and doing so efficiently… again, except for that pesky Iowa game. Prior to last week’s clunker, the junior QB was completing over 75 percent of his passes and only turned the ball over once. After five picks against the Hawkeyes, Tagovailoa now owns just a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

I think the Iowa game is less indicative of Tagovailoa’s play, and more of a confirmation that the Hawkeyes have one of the best defenses in the entire country. They created pressure against Maryland, knocked Tagovailoa off his base, and forced him into poor, quick decisions. When given time, the kid can sling it. Much like his older brother, Taulia does not have a cannon of an arm, but he throws a great ball. When he’s on, the accuracy is everything you could ask for. It sounds obvious, but when Tagovailoa is good, he’s good. When he’s bad… he throws all of the interceptions. All of them.

Tagovailoa’s talent is undeniable, and he plays in a system that is conducive to big plays. His coach has compared him to Johnny Manziel, and honestly, there are some similarities. Like Manziel, Tagovailoa is undersized (5’11”, 200), loves to throw the deep ball, and has a gift for extending plays. Those extended plays can often appear as if they are destined for disaster, but the Maryland QB buys just enough time for his guys to get open, and the end result reminds you of a backyard football play drawn up in the dirt.

Despite losing Dontay Demus, who was the Big Ten’s leading receiver prior to being injured against Iowa, Tagovailoa still has plenty of weapons in his arsenal. Rakim Jarrett (former OSU target) and Jeshaun Jones are capable playmakers, and they will see a target increase with Demus out. The Terps don’t run the ball often, but starting running back Tayon Fleet-Davis averages over seven yards per touch from scrimmage. As if those players were not dangerous enough, Tagovailoa can also run the ball just well enough to make him a threat. He only has 57 yards rushing in 2021, but he was able to match that in one game against Minnesota last year.

Mike Locksley is likely very aware that his team will need to score in bunches to keep up with Ohio State, so I expect him to let Tagovailoa loose. The Buckeye defense may have turned a corner against Rutgers, but this Maryland team is much more explosive than the Scarlet Knights. For all we know, Week 5 could have been a fluke for both teams. Tagovailoa was an All-Big Ten candidate for the first month, and OSU’s defense was outside the top-100. This game will be a test for both. Here’s hoping that the Buckeyes can pass with flying colors.