In the third quarter of last Friday night’s win over Illinois, Maryland football’s quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa surveyed the field but didn't find any open options. Instead of trying to throw a pass in a tight, nonexistent spot, Tagovailoa rolled out and took off with his legs, picking up the first down to move the chains for the Terps.
It wasn’t the most important play, or even necessarily a key play, in the comeback 20-17 win at Illinois to move the Terps to 3-0 for the first time since 2016, but it was a play that shows the leap Tagovailoa has taken from a decision-making standpoint in year one to year two.
Yes, 956 yards, seven touchdowns and a 75% completion rate through three games is incredibly impressive. But the most telling stat about Tagovailoa’s development from last season to this one is something else: zero interceptions.
In a shortened 2020 season, Tagovailoa played in four games. In that short run, he totaled seven interceptions. It was clear his arm strength, ability to use his legs and precision passing were all in place for Tagovailoa to have a special season in year two. However, the decision-making and excess of turnovers were still a question.
While the season is still young, there is no question Tagovailoa has addressed those issues and elevated his game in his second year in College Park.
“One of the biggest things going into the offseason that I had to work on was my decision-making, my reads and things like that,” Tagovailoa said.
Last Friday against Illinois, Maryland’s offense was limited in the first half, totaling just three points. The Terps offense made adjustments and came out in the second half clicking. With a little over four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Maryland’s offense got the ball back down a touchdown.
In just his eighth start as a collegiate quarterback, Tagovailoa was as calm and poised as could be. The Hawaii native orchestrated an 86-yard drive while completing five of his six passes to get in the end zone and tie the game for the Terps.
“I think us as a team, we’re more comfortable with each other,” Tagovailoa said. “We had a full offseason, so I think everyone’s just seeing the hard work we put in all offseason.”
Tagovailoa leads all of college football in dropbacks with zero turnover-worthy plays this season with 116, according to Pro Football Focus. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, who is currently the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, is second on the list with 114 dropbacks.
Pro Football Focus also has Tagovailoa as the second highest-graded quarterback in the country and the top-graded quarterback in the Big Ten.
“He’s just grown and kind of built from last year,” junior wide receiver Jeshaun Jones said. “He’s just learned and grew and learned us and learned the offense and the team and that’s what’s helped a lot.”
A year ago, Tagovailoa would often throw the ball into bad spots where his receivers weren't open, or if a broken play occurred at the line of scrimmage, he would try to be a hero with his arm and make something out of nothing.
That hasn't been the case this year. The junior is using his legs at a much higher rate to escape pressure and has shown patience by throwing the ball away if he doesn't see anything open. That growth has allowed Maryland to control the turnover battle and time of possession.
The Terps got destroyed in the time of possession last season, averaging 25 minutes per game with the ball. This season, they are up to 33 minutes per game through three contests. It should be noted the competition was stiffer last season in five games against just Big Ten opponents, but there certainly has been improvement nonetheless.
Maryland’s given up five sacks this year, compared to 16 in five games last season. That’s also credited to an improved offensive line.
“I think all the credit goes to the O-line, the receivers making great plays, really making me look good with my decisions,” Tagovailoa said.
With a stellar start to the season comes national praise, including a plea for Tagovailoa to get some Heisman consideration from a former quarterback who hoisted the trophy himself.
2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III tweeted that Tagovailoa was number four on his Heisman watch list.
“That’s crazy,” Tagovailoa said about Griffin’s tweet. “That’s a blessing. The things he did in college and the NFL is crazy.”
As competition gets stiffer and the defenses get better against stronger Big Ten opponents, Tagovailoa will have a tougher task to limit turnovers. But if the first three weeks are any indication, his decision-making is on another level in year two in head coach Michael Locksley’s program.