Maryland football defeated West Virginia, 30-24, in its season opener. The Terps’ offense was prolific and their defense came away with huge turnovers and did just enough to give Maryland the win.
Maryland has had major success in the opening game of the season for over a decade now. The last time Maryland lost the opening game of its season to a nonconference opponent was in 2009. That was no different on Saturday as Maryland took down its former rival West Virginia in front of a packed house.
Let’s take a look at some takeaways from the game.
Taulia Tagovailoa was phenomenal in the season opener
All eyes were on Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and his development entering year two in College Park. This was the first time in head coach Mike Locksley's tenure that he had a returning quarterback to work with. If there was any doubt entering the season surrounding Tagovailoa, he silenced that noise. Tagovailoa carried the Terps offense with a 26-for-36, 332 yards and three touchdown performance.
A question mark entering Tagovailoa’s junior campaign was his decision-making. The Hawaii native had seven interceptions in four games in 2020. However, on Saturday, Tagovailoa was sharp and decisive with his throws. He made precise passes all afternoon and on numerous instances made sure to throw it away when a play was dead instead of heaving up a prayer into the opposing defense's lap.
Tagovailoa also made some difficult, off-balance throws while hitting his weapons in stride, including a 66-yard touchdown bomb to senior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. He also looked to be much improved at getting the ball out quicker, at times right before the mountaineer defensive line could get to him.
This wasn't some cakewalk defense Maryland was playing either. West Virginia led the country in passing yards allowed last season. The fact Tagovailoa was able to have the success in the air that he had is encouraging for Maryland moving forward.
Tagovailoa has a hoist of weapons to rely on and he certainly utilized their presence. Other than the 66-yard touchdown to Demus Jr., Tagovailoa also had a 35-yard bullet to his star wideout. Demus Jr. finished with a career-high 133 yards. Sophomore wideout Rakim Jarrett, the other standout playmaker at the receiver position for Maryland, had a terrific day, catching six passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.
“I’ve seen the jump all throughout the offseason,” Jarrett said. “Today was just you guys seeing it.”
The balance between the passing and running attack was on display
Entering the season, Maryland was considered to be a pass-heavy offense, in large part due to the potential of Tagovailoa and the influx of playmakers at his disposal. However, in the opener, Maryland did not rely on the pass as much as many would have thought. Maryland ran 80 total plays, 44 of which were rushing attempts.
With the exit of Jake Funk to the NFL, Maryland had little experience returning to the running back room. Despite that, the Terps relied heavily on senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis to carry the load. Fleet-Davis had 18 carries for 123 yards, including a breakaway run for 53 yards with under three minutes to go that secured the Terps victory.
If Maryland can rely on the run to move the chains, it will certainly keep the defense honest and make the Terps offense more difficult to game plan for. It also helps that Locksley and offensive coordinator Dan Enos have the ability to call the pass-run option with the swift speed of Tagovailoa. The mobile quarterback ran the ball six times, some designed and some in which Tagovailoa attempted to make something out of nothing.
Maryland is, and should be, a pass-heavy offense. However, if it can rely on a strong running game, particularly from Fleet-Davis, the coaching staff will have a much easier job calling plays moving forward. Along with Fleet-Davis, Isaiah Jacobs saw a ton of carries. Jacobs had 14 attempts that net 50 yards.
Maryland dominated the turnover battle
Maryland has a talented, experienced secondary that the coaching staff hoped could build on a solid 2020. The one area where they struggled was takeaways. Maryland had just two interceptions in a shortened 2020 season. Against West Virginia, Maryland matched that total, with interceptions by defensive back Nick Cross and Jakorian Bennett against the Mountaineers.
Maryland finished the game with four total turnovers, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, while the Mountaineers defense failed to produce any turnovers.
“We were a defense that did not have many takeaways last year if you look at our turnover ratio,” Locksley said. “It’s great to be able to get four turnovers today.”
Not only did the secondary produce key and timely takeaways, but they played a huge role in a defense that often bent, but never broke. Cross and defensive back Tarheeb Still led the team with seven tackles apiece. Still also had a sack.
While West Virginia moved the ball with ease at times throughout the afternoon, the Terps certainly have a defensive foundation it can build on the rest of the season. And if they are able to control the turnover battle the way they did today, they will be in good shape the rest of the way.