Maryland football is officially eligible for a bowl game in 2021.
That’s a statement that wasn’t necessarily a sure thing heading into Saturday’s regular season finale against Rutgers, but the Terps pulled out the massive road win to hit the six-win mark this season. Maryland ends the regular season with an even 6-6 record after defeating the Scarlet Knights, 40-16.
The Terps are now eligible for a bowl game for the first time since 2016.
“I’m really proud, obviously, of our team. It’s been a long season for us,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “We very rarely talk about injuries and we don’t make excuses, for our team to come up, put it together today, I think all three phases contributed in some form or fashion. Wasn’t pretty, but it was enough.”
Here are the three biggest takeaways from Maryland’s sixth win of the season.
A dominant first half from Maryland helped it climb over the six-win hump
In a win-or-go-home game in which one of the two programs would stall at five wins on the season, Maryland punched Rutgers in the mouth right out of the gates. The Terps wasted no time getting on the scoreboard and they ran up their point total on the Scarlet Knights over the course of the opening 30 minutes.
In the previous seven weeks, Maryland had broken the 20-point mark just twice. It scored 38 in the win over Indiana and then 21 points in the loss to Michigan State. In all other games, it finished with a point total below 20. It was able to flip the script in the first half of this one.
The Terps’ first two drives both ended in touchdowns. Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was flawless in the first quarter, tossing touchdowns to tight end Corey Dyches and wide receiver Brian Cobbs from 25 and 38 yards out, respectively. The dominance only continued for Maryland on offense in the second quarter. Tagovailoa scampered away from the pressure that Rutgers offered and sprinted into the end zone from 10-yards out to give him his third total touchdown from scrimmage in the first half.
Maryland scored 20 points in the opening half, tying the program’s third-highest halftime total this season. The Terps completely outplayed the Scarlet Knights on the offensive side of things, out-gaining them 316-140 in yardage in the first half.
But that’s not to say that the defense didn’t do its part. After struggling since the first day of October, Maryland’s defense made a big first-half stand against the revolving quarterback circus that Rutgers deployed.
The Scarlet Knights utilized three different quarterbacks in the first half alone, a sign of just how inefficient the Terps’ defense made them. All three of those passers combined for just 87 passing yards on 18 attempts, while Maryland also forced a tip-drill interception, which was caught by defensive back Jakorian Bennett.
The Terps more than doubled the Scarlet Knights’ yardage in the first half, and as a result, Maryland held a huge 20-2 lead going into the break of a must-win game. With the 18-point advantage and just two quarters to play, Maryland went on to close out the game on the road to becoming eligible for a bowl game.
Maryland’s offensive playmakers got the job done in the must-win game
The Terps’ offense was a bright point for the program in its most important game of the 2021 season. Not only was the offense playing much better than it had in the last two months or so, but the typical playmakers on the team stood out.
Starting with Tagovailoa, he performed just as he needed to against Rutgers if Maryland had hoped to come away with its second Big Ten road win of the season. The junior signal-caller finished 21-of-30 in the passing game for 312 yards and three touchdowns. He was also a factor on the ground as well, rushing for a 10-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
He made big third down throws and he was able to find his open receivers when he needed to. With Tagovailoa’s excellent effort through the air, Maryland also converted 9-of-15 third-down attempts. Tagovailoa also broke Maryland’s single-season passing yards record with his touchdown to Cobbs in the second quarter.
Tagovailoa was the difference-maker in this one, and there were other Terps that deserve some recognition for the production they were able to provide on Saturday afternoon.
Maryland’s top remaining playmakers — Rakim Jarrett and Tayon Fleet-Davis — had some of their best individual games of the season. Jarrett was the best pass catcher Maryland had all day as he totaled 111 yards and seven receptions. Fleet-Davis had a resurgent game himself, collecting 185 total yards from scrimmage along with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“I knew for a fact I didn’t want this to be my last game,” Fleet-Davis said. “So you know I just wanted to make sure that no matter what I did that we didn’t lose this game because of me.”
Elsewhere, Cobbs and Dyches came through in a major way for Maryland. Cobbs had easily his season-best performance, collecting 86 yards and a touchdown. Dyches scored two touchdowns for the Terps in the win.
Overall, it was a game where Maryland’s playmakers stepped up and helped the program eventually capture that elusive sixth win.
Despite a rocky season, Maryland is making positive strides in its progression as a program
It hasn't been the easiest season for Maryland, but it still accomplished the goal it had its eyes set on since the beginning of the 2021 campaign. Maryland started off 4-0, already two wins away from capturing bowl eligibility for the first time since 2016.
But then it went on its massive losing streak. The Terps dropped six of their next seven games, falling to a 5-6 record. Maryland was injury-ridden all over the field, losing important positional left and right and the drought in the win column seemed to be the salt in the wound heading into the final portion of the regular season. Maryland also went winless against ranked opponents in 2021, going a combined 0-5 in bouts with the conference’s best.
It may have shown how far it is from being close to the top half of the conference, however, the program came into Saturday with the same overall record and conference record as Rutgers. It finally had a beatable opponent after failing to compete with the elite Big Ten teams in few weeks prior.
And just like in 2016, when Maryland beat Rutgers to advance to becoming bowl eligible, it once again came on top over the Scarlet Knights in a must-win game.
It’s not easy to win on the road in any conference, especially the Big Ten, but Maryland overcame its most important task to date. The Terps accomplished their biggest goal of the season and they are now bowl eligible after five straight years of general disappointment and murmurs of growth as a program that never came. But, this time around, that finally changed. The Terps went into Piscataway, New Jersey and came away with a win to help it eclipse the six-win mark.
“It means a lot to me, it means a lot to our program, it means a lot for our young kids coming up, our freshmen and stuff,” defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu said about becoming bowl eligible. “It’s a big win for us, man. It gives us a chance to go bowling, gives me another chance to prove myself again...”
Maryland still has many future positive strides that it will need to make under Locksley, but becoming bowl eligible in a tough Big Ten conference is a worthy accomplishment for a team that has faced more than enough adversity in 2021.
“It’s all about continuing to develop our program,” Locksley said. “This opportunity gives us the chance to do that. Really, really proud of the guys. Really, really proud of their effort and I’m looking forward to developing our team with these bowl opportunities.”