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Grading Maryland football’s positions after its 40-21 loss to No. 8 Michigan State

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The defense let Maryland down once again.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Maryland football’s road to the postseason just got a little bit tougher.

It was another game of defensive lapses for the indisciplined Terps, who committed a grand total of 13 penalties in the 40-21 road loss to No. 8 Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday evening.

The Spartans put up 27 points in the first half alone, a point total that Maryland did not end up reaching through 60 minutes of play. Maryland now stands at 5-5 with two games remaining in the regular season, with the next two weeks determining whether or not it becomes bowl eligible for the first time since 2016. Matchups against Michigan and then Rutgers will decide whether Maryland will hit the six-win mark.

But as always, let’s look at the positional grades from the Terps’ fifth loss of the season.

Quarterback

It was the perfect storm for quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who didn’t nearly play his best but suffered from questionable offensive line play and receiver drops all evening long. Maryland was dysfunctional on offense at times, and there were good moments and not-so-good moments for the junior.

Tagovailoa had a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, but an ugly interception on the first drive of the third quarter stunted Maryland’s comeback hopes. Tagovailoa finished with 48 pass attempts and tallied 350 yards on 29 completions. There were certainly moments where better plays from him could’ve changed the outlook of the game.

Tagovailoa was also flagged for intentional grounding on three separate occasions after being pressured, all of which came in Michigan State territory. The Terps are having trouble protecting their quarterback and it’s showing.

Grade: C

Running back

Giving up 27 first-half points is never a good recipe for getting your running backs their fair share of work on the ground. Maryland was trailing early and often and it never held a lead, resulting in a quiet performance from the team’s backs.

An impressive outing in the backfield came from sophomore Peny Boone, who had some hard runs through contact, especially on his long carry of 28-yards. Boone added a four-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter and ended the game with five carries for 42 yards, which is 8.4 yards per carry.

Freshman Colby McDonald was second on the team with six carries for 38 yards, but the most surprising aspect of Saturday’s game was the limited usage of Tayon Fleet-Davis. Fleet-Davis received just four carries and had five yards on the ground. Boone and McDonald carried the bulk of the workload, and they did well with what they were given, but their collective performance wasn’t enough to be a game-changer.

Grade: B

Wide receiver

It was another game filled with drops and a sense of disconnect with this wide receiver group as a whole, albeit the stellar effort from Rakim Jarrett.

The sophomore wide receiver paced all pass catchers in the contest with 10 catches off 14 targets from Tagovailoa. Jarrett finished with his second-best output yardage-wise, collecting 105 yards, which was easily the most out of any receiver. Maryland had to throw the ball early and often and Jarrett was the common and reliable recipient.

Where Maryland struggled, though, was with its depth, which was a proclaimed strength in the first half of the season before Dontay Demus Jr, and Jeshaun Jones went down with season-ending injuries. Darryl Jones, Carlos Carriere, Marcus Fleming and Brian Cobbs combined for just six catches for 92 yards. The Terps need a lot more out of their depth receivers if they hope to capture their sixth win eventually.

Grade: C

Tight end

For the second straight week, it was Maryland’s top tight end that was one of the biggest bright points for this program. The Terps’ success on offense ran through the likes of the senior Okonkwo, who did an excellent job building off last week’s 12-catch, 85-yard performance in the loss to Penn State in College Park.

Okonkwo has had quite the second-half surge this season and he hauled in eight catches on nine targets for a team-best 112 yards. He also had touchdowns in the second quarter and third quarter, both of which came from 32-yards out. Okonkwo’s second touchdown was a highlight-reel play as he leaped over a defender en route to the end zone after bringing on a well-designed screen pass.

Okonkwo now has 20 catches in his last two games after registering 20 in his first eight. He’s been a standout in the passing game as of late and don’t be surprised if Tagovailoa keeps looking his way next week.

Grade: A

Offensive line

Maryland’s offensive line, which came into the season as one of the more questionable units on this roster, has proven to be a positional group filled with inconsistency through 10 games in 2021. That storyline was no different against the Spartans.

Tagovailoa was once again running for his life on every blitz and on a good amount of passing plays, resulting in poor throws and incompletions, as well as sacks. Michigan State got to the junior quarterback four separate times, with four different Spartans each recording a sack.

The Terps’ ground game when they went for rushes was solid, but a 48-pass attempt day from Tagovailoa put extra pressure on the offensive line to protect their quarterback often, and they weren’t able to. Tagovailoa is going to need some more time in the pocket if Maryland hopes to win one of the next two games.

Grade: D+

Defensive line

Similar to the tight ends on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive line was Maryland’s best defensive asset in the defeat to the Spartans. The Terps may not have pressured Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne as much as it would’ve liked to, but the defensive line gave them a fighting chance to crawl back into the game.

Senior defensive lineman Ami Finau had the defensive play of the game, stripping a Spartan with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter to give Maryland the ball back in Michigan State territory down 13. Finau had one of the best performances of his individual season, racking up 11 total tackles, one sack and the forced fumble.

Elsewhere, the Terps’ only other sack came from graduate defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu. Finau’s forced fumble had the chance to be a game-changing play at the time, but overall, Maryland’s interior had problems with stopping the elite Kenneth Walker III. The running back finished with 30 carries for 143 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t as good of a performance as it was last week for the defensive line, but it wasn’t poor by any means.

Grade: B

Linebacker

Maryland’s linebackers haven’t made too many noticeable plays since the end of the program’s four-game winning streak that it had to begin the season, and this game was no different.

Sophomore Ruben Hyppolite II and Gereme Spraggins combined for 10 tackles, one of which was for a loss, but the issues continue to be with missed tackles across the board. Maryland simply couldn’t clog up the middle of the field against Michigan State, and as a result, Thorne and Walker tore apart the Terps. Some of the blame there falls on this linebacker corps.

The linebackers haven't been able to stop opposing offenses or make any game-breaking plays, and it led to the Spartans totaling nearly 500 yards of offense. Penalties also continue to be an issue, as three flags were thrown in this defensive group as well.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Starting the game in the first quarter by getting beat on a flea flicker for a 52-yard touchdown is not a good confidence boost for a positional group that has fallen off a cliff in the second half of the season. Maryland’s worst defensive outing, by far and away, came from the secondary.

Thorne seemed too comfortable out there for the Spartans and he finished 22-of-31 for 287 passing yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Jayden Reed took a page out of Jahan Dotson’s book against this secondary, collecting eight catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns on a day where Maryland couldn’t stop much of anything defensively yet again.

But where the secondary took a major step backward was with the penalties. Five of Maryland’s nine penalties came from the secondary, with a mix of defensive pass interferences, face mask flags and holding calls. The secondary is running out of time to get it together before a meeting with Michigan.

Grade: D

Special teams

Maryland’s special teams continues to be a major issue. The Terps’ punting crew did land four punt attempts within the Michigan State 20-yard line in as many tries, but outside of punts, the Terps have problems elsewhere.

Senior kicker Joseph Petrino has had a rough two weeks for the Terps. Petrino missed an extra point last weekend in the Penn State matchup, then he skewed a critical field goal attempt way wide to the right in the third quarter when Maryland was down 13. It was a big moment in the game after Maryland failed to score a touchdown as it needed points to mount a comeback. The miss was Petrino’s only field goal attempt in the game.

Miscues on special teams can be seen as self-inflicted wounds and Maryland had plenty of those on Saturday in the program’s fifth loss of 2021.

Grade: C