PISCATAWAY, N.J. — After quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa took the final knee, the Maryland football team erupted into cheers. While the players on the field jumped around, those on the sidelines picked up the large orange cooler and dumped the icy liquid over head coach Michael Locksley’s head as the team rushed onto the field to take a photo all together by the end zone.
“I feel blessed for my brothers man. We’ve had a long journey to get here, up and down season,” defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu said. “Thankful for my senior brothers who are leaving to just all be there in that moment taking that picture, you know, enjoying the win... definitely a big win for us.”
The Terps held onto their lead for the entirety of the matchup, propelling them to a 40-16 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2016.
Both Rutgers and Maryland came into this matchup with 5-6 records searching for that elusive sixth win but the Scarlet Knights could not overcome their deficit to walk away with the victory.
“This is my first time going bowling and I’m still in shock, not in shock but just I can’t believe,” senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis said. “I’m ready for it and I can’t wait to experience and I’m also excited that my team gets to experience this especially for the young guys, freshmen and sophomores and just so they have something to look forward to next season when they come in.”
Tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo had the first reception of the day with a seven-yard catch. From there, Maryland got to work. In nine plays, quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa moved the Terps down the field to give Maryland the early advantage.
The drive included a 20-yard completion to wide receiver Brian Cobbs and Tagovailoa it capped off with a 25-yard pass to a wide-open tight end Corey Dyches who marched it into the end zone for the touchdown. Kicker Joseph Petrino’s extra point attempt was good and the Terps went up 7-0 early in the game.
On Maryland’s next drive, Tagovailoa once again marched the Terps downhill to give Maryland the 13-0 advantage with a 38-yard touchdown pass to Cobbs.
“[Cobbs has] played an integral role from a leadership standpoint, and really embodies the unselfishness that’s necessary in any type of program when you’re building it,” Locksley said.
However, when Petrino took the field to kick the extra point, his attempt was blocked and returned all the way back to the opposite end zone to give Rutgers two points closing Maryland’s lead to, 13-2.
Maryland’s defense brought the pressure on the Scarlet Knights’ next possession. Rutgers picked up three first downs but ultimately turned the ball over on downs deep in Maryland territory after quarterback Noah Vedral overthrew wide receiver Bo Melton in the end zone.
The Terps took over on their own three-yard line but couldn’t get anything going as they went three-and-out. The Scarlet Knights started on their own 37-yard line to start off the second quarter.
However, on the third play of the drive Vedral’s pass was broken up by defensive lineman Isaac Bunyun as it popped up and fell into the hands of defensive back Jakorian Bennett who grabbed his third interception of the season. The Terps took over on their own 38-yard line.
Maryland couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity and went three-and-out for the second consecutive drive. On Rutgers’ next drive it put in quarterback Evan Simon but couldn’t get anything going and punted it away.
Tagovailoa started the drive by taking a shot downfield to wide receiver Rakim Jarrett who raced deep into Rutgers territory but the pass was broken up by the Scarlet Knights. After that, the Terps couldn’t find its momentum and brought up fourth down. The Terps punted and the Scarlet Knights took over on the 26-yard line.
On the next drive, Rutgers switched quarterbacks, this time to Johnny Langan. After Langan completed a 31-yard pass to advance into Maryland territory, Vedral came back into the game. However, again, Rutgers struggled to find momentum on offense turning the ball over on downs as Maryland took over on its 36-yard line.
A 20-yard pass down the middle of the field to wide receiver Carlos Carriere kept the drive alive on third down however, on the next play, Tagovailoa felt the pressure on a failed flea flicker attempt and aired the ball down the right sideline picking up an intentional grounding call. On third-and-20, Tagovailoa sailed it to Jarrett for a 26-yard reception to give Maryland a fresh set of downs.
On first-and-10, Tagovailoa kept it himself and raced to the right side of the end zone extending Maryland’s lead. The extra point attempt was good and Maryland was up, 20-2 with four minutes and 12 seconds to go in the first half.
A quick three-and-out for Rutgers gave Maryland the ball again at its 28-yard line and it capitalized.
On the sixth play of the drive, Tagovailoa completed an 18-yard pass to Cobbs to set Maryland’s single-season passing yard record as he brought his 2021 season record total to 3,528 yards.
A few plays later, Tagovailoa attempted to rush up the middle, lost the ball but recovered it. Maryland rushed a quick field goal but Petrino’s attempt from 31-yards out sailed wide right as the Terps went into the locker room up, 20-2.
To start off the second half, Simon came out as quarterback for the Scarlet Knights. On the fourth play of the opening drive, Simon handed it off to running back Isaih Pacheco who rushed down the field 23 yards deep into Maryland territory.
On the next ground play, cornerback Tarheeb Still was tabbed with an unnecessary roughness call moving Rutgers even closer to the end zone. Two plays later, three plays later, Langan was in at quarterback, kept the snap and rushed it up the middle for a one-yard touchdown. The extra point made it an 11-point game with about 11 and a half minutes to go in the third quarter.
Fleet-Davis kicked off the next drive with a 43-yard run deep into Rutgers’ territory and set Maryland up in a position to find the end zone five plays later as Tagovailoa completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Dyches. Petrino missed the extra point as Maryland extended its lead to 26-9.
This time, Rutgers had a response. After Melton returned a kickoff 53 yards, the Scarlet Knights moved down the field 37 yards in two and a half minutes and capped off the five-play drive with a three-yard rushing touchdown and successful extra point.
“I feel like we’ve been in some games where we’ve gotten up and kind of got comfortable and stuff like that and then we let it get close. We might finish out with the win but we let it get to a point where it shouldn’t have ever been,” Cobbs said. “So one thing that we did a good job today as players and coaches as well as just getting back to neutral.”
After exchanging unsuccessful offensive drives, Maryland had the ball again with three minutes to go in the third quarter. The Terps once again converted on a crucial third-and-five as Tagovailoa completed a 23-yard pass to Fleet-Davis to hit the 300-yard passing mark for the seventh time this season and keep the drive alive.
The Terps went on to score at the beginning of the fourth quarter with a 13-yard rushing touchdown from Fleet-Davis and extend their lead to 33-16.
“Really proud of our 25 seniors,” coach Locksley said. “I keep talking about those guys because I understand what they’ve endured.”
On Rutgers’ next drive, Maryland’s defense came up in a big way stopping the Scarlet Knights on a fourth-and-goal opportunity one yard away from the end zone.
Maryland continued to pile it on in the fourth quarter with touchdowns from Fleet-Davis to officially put the game out of reach. Maryland walked away from Piscataway with a bowl-qualifying sixth win, capturing the 40-16 road victory.
“I mean, it’s just a good feeling,” Tagovailoa said. “You know, we’ve been through so much as a team. You know, to make it to a bowl game that’s like what Coach Locks talks about, taking the next step. We want to be the team to do that.”
Three things to know
1. Taulia Tagovailoa now holds Maryland’s single-season passing yard record. In the second quarter, Tagovailoa completed an 18-yard pass to Cobbs to surpass Scott Milanovich as the single-season passing yard record holder. At that point in the game, Tagovailoa had 3,528 total passing yards. The quarterback finished the day with 312 yards, three passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and zero interceptions bringing his passing yard total of the regular season up to 3,550.
2. Maryland had a strong performance on third down. With about nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Terps had converted on seven of their 10 attempted third downs all of which happened on drives ending in scores for Maryland. Coming into this game, the Terps were converting on third down just 35.81% of the time but against the Scarlet Knights, they had a much stronger performance. To finish the game, Maryland’s offense converted on nine of their 50 third-down attempts.
On the defensive end, Maryland allowed the Scarlet Knights to convert on just two of their 11 attempts on third downs.
3. Maryland football is headed to a bowl game. The last time Maryland made a bowl was in 2016 when it advanced to the Quick Lane Bowl. That season felt similar to this 2021 campaign in which the Terps finished the regular season 6-6, 3-6 in conference play. In 2016, Maryland started 4-0 picked up a win against Michigan State and ended the season with a 31-13 victory over Rutgers in College Park ending its bowl hopes. This time, the bowl-qualifying rematch game was in Piscataway but the Terps got the job done as they will return to a bowl for the first time since they faced Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26, 2016.
“We want this to become the standard,” Locksley said. “Teams that go to bowls have more opportunities to develop their team and that’s what these next practices in these next few weeks will be all about.”