In a primetime Friday night matchup against the No. 5 team in the country, Maryland got annihilated, 51-14.
After the first quarter, Maryland seemed like it would compete with the third-best scoring defense in the country in Iowa as the Terps led 7-3 in front of a filled, and energetic crowd at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
The second quarter went off the rails quickly as wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. fumbled on a punt return that set Iowa up for prime field position. Not only was there a fumble on the play, but Demus’ leg was twisted and he had to be carted off the field. He did not return to the game. It can't be understated how massive of a loss Demus was to the offense against Iowa and will be for however long he is out.
From that moment, it was all downhill for the Terps. Interceptions by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and costly penalties killed Maryland as they were outscored in the second quarter 31-0.
There are various takeaways to walk away with such a daunting loss, but Tagovailoa’s regression and the lack of discipline are at the top, along with an autopsy on where Maryland football stands from a zoomed-out perspective.
Discipline issues and sloppy play derailed the Terps
Since the start of training camp, head coach Mike Locksley has put an emphasis on discipline and the importance of limiting self-inflicted wounds that are hard to come back from. On Friday night against Iowa, the lack of discipline continued to derail the Terps.
On the opening drive of the game, Maryland was looking to go for it around midfield on a fourth and one situation. Instead, center Johari Branch was called for a false start penalty, forcing the Terps to punt it away.
On the next offensive drive for the Terps, Maryland was in a third and one, but instead of moving the chains, Branch was called for another false start, putting the Terps in a difficult third-down situation. On the ensuing play, Tagovailoa threw his first interception of the game.
That was just the start of the parade of yellow flags thrown against Maryland’s sideline, ruining its chance of getting stops and moving the ball. In the first half alone, Maryland was called for three false starts, three defensive pass interference calls, a roughing the passer and an unsportsmanlike conduct call.
The penalties were cleaned up slightly in the second half, but it didn't matter as the game was already out of reach. The Terps finished the game with 10 penalties for 86 yards.
“You got to play to the standard that we set as a team at the beginning of the season, get back to playing like,” cornerback Tarheeb Still said. “Then obviously limiting the penalties and turnovers, stop beating ourselves.”
Taulia Tagovailoa came back down to earth against a phenomenal defense
Through four games, Tagovailoa had been terrific in all facets of the game, including his precision passing and smart decision making. He only had thrown one interception coming into the Iowa matchup, and that one wasn't exactly his fault. However, against the Hawkeyes, Tagovailoa took a step back in his development as he threw five picks and was visibly frustrated coming off the field on a few of them.
It was certainly the toughest defense Tagovailoa had faced all year and maybe the toughest he will face all season, but the junior quarterback failed to get a read on the elite secondary as the Hawkeyes suffocating defense was a step ahead of Tagovailoa all night.
The four-interception performance was reminiscent of some of Tagovailoa’s poor performances in 2020 when he threw seven interceptions in four games.
While the national praise Tagovailoa had been receiving may take a week off after this performance, it can be an opportunity Tagovailoa can learn from as he plays more good, but not as elite, Big Ten defenses.
As stated earlier, Iowa has the third-best scoring defense in the entire country that clearly rattled Tagovailoa. He finished the game 16-for-29 for 157 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions.
Maryland’s offense still has the potential to be elite against good defenses as Tagovailoa continues to develop in his young career — the Iowa game was Tagovailoa’s ninth career start — and Maryland still possesses offensive weapons on the perimeter. But it will be difficult for Maryland to knock off any prominent Big Ten opponents without Tagovailoa limiting his interceptions.
“I think the big thing for him is just keeping his confidence,” Locksley said. “He was pressing a little bit after the first couple interceptions and wanting to go play well, what I talked to him about was like look, ‘this is just one game, let’s play one play, lets get to the next play.’”
Maryland dropped the ball in a big opportunity, proving that it’s strides away from the top of the conference
Opportunities that garner as much national attention and fan support as the game against Iowa on Friday night did come few and far between for a program like Maryland football, even as they continue to build from the ground up and have undoubtedly made strides in the talent level that comes to play in College Park.
But in front of a packed house, and an electric atmosphere at opening kickoff in which Maryland fans were rocking all black, the Terps dropped the ball, failing to get over the big game hump once again.
Two years ago, in Locksley’s first year as head coach, Maryland started the season 2-1 heading into a highly anticipated Friday night showdown against Penn State in College Park. By the first quarter, that game was completely out of reach and the stadium, especially the student section, was cleared out. The Nittany Lions ended up winning that game 59-0.
Maryland has made significant improvements to the program and culture since then, which is evident by the team's first 4-0 start since 2016, but two years later, in a similar, potentially monumental spot, it didn’t exactly feel like those strides have been made.
While it wasn't a first-quarter clear out on Friday night, just about the entire student section left by halftime. A student section that showed out to start and at one point seemed like they would have a real impact on the game.
“That’s probably the most disappointing part for me as the head coach,” Locksley said. “We’ve had opportunities here the last couple of years where we could capitalize on the energy and support that they [the fans] continue to bring.”
Against Penn State two years ago, Maryland came into the matchup as 6.5 point underdogs. Against Iowa on Friday, Maryland was 3.5 point underdogs. The build-up and feeling surrounding this matchup felt different. Maryland fans and it appeared the team, felt like they had a serious chance to beat a top-five team in the country and make a monster statement.
When the Nittany Lions came to town, Maryland was still unproven and had yet to be battle-tested. A victory over Penn State in 2019 felt like a much higher mountain to climb than one over Iowa in 2021. While the defeat wasn't as bad this year, it was still too high of a mountain to climb for the Terps in the 51-14 loss.
Friday night was a primetime opportunity to showcase to the country, and the rest of the Big Ten, that Maryland had arrived. Instead, Maryland proved it is a ways away from competing with the elite of the conference.
While Locksley has won as an underdog before, he has yet to secure a serious statement win in the Big Ten that can convince fans his program has finally arrived and to show out for more occasions than just a primetime game once a season.
The good news for Maryland is they will have a plethora of more chances to get a marquee win this season with a difficult Big Ten slate on the horizon, including home games against Indiana, Penn State and Michigan.
“I definitely feel as though it was a missed opportunity on our part, disappointed for our fans because they sure showed out for us when we needed them,” Locksley said.