Maryland football nearly pulled a massive upset and took down No. 2 Ohio State, but the Buckeyes ended up holding on for a 43-30 victory Saturday. The game was as close as three points in the fourth quarter, but the Terps couldn’t finish off what would have been a potentially program-changing win.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
The Terps came out with energy and refused to go away.
Tabbed as huge underdogs coming off back-to-back disappointing performances and up against one of the best teams in all of college football, the Terps outplayed Ohio State in the first half and looked as motivated as they have at any point this season. In front of a crowded SECU Stadium — that at times looked reminiscent of Ohio Stadium — Maryland gave its fans something to cheer for after Ohio State took an early 7-0 lead.
Maryland’s defense locked in after that, only allowed three points to one of the nation’s best offenses and almost entirely shutting down the Buckeyes’ rushing game, only allowing 19 rushing yards the rest of the first half.
“Defensively today, those guys, they played desperate. They had nothing to lose. Our [defensive backs] challenged a really talented receiver group, and that’s how we felt we needed to play to give ourselves a chance,” Maryland head coach Mike Locksley said.
The defense’s performance, along with more play-calling creativity than has been seen in recent weeks, allowed the Terps to take a lead into the half. There was a real sense of optimism among the players that they could hang with the No. 2 team in the country.
“We were excited to be there in that kind of game — like we expected to be — and, you know, we just gotta move on and know we can contend with anyone if we play to our standard,” sophomore tight end C.J. Dippre said.
There were multiple moments in the third and fourth quarters that it looked like Ohio State would pull away and cruise to a victory with one play. Maryland never let that happen, though, and while the Buckeyes found success on the ground with freshman running back Dallan Hayden, they couldn’t put quite enough separation between them and the Terps to get a comfortable win.
When senior Colton Spangler’s punt was blocked, it looked like a prime opportunity for Ohio State to pull away. But, Maryland stuck around and kept it a close game, unlike many Terps teams in the past would have.
“Anytime we created some momentum, we give up a big kickoff return. We create some momentum, we get a punt blocked. But the resiliency that this team has shown all year — except maybe a couple games — was totally on display today. And that’s where, that’s where I’m proud of the way that we fought,” Locksley said.
Despite the final result, this Maryland team showed more fight than most expected.
“We fought. We fought hard,” senior defensive back Jakorian Bennett said. “We knew it was gonna be a four-quarter game and you know, they’re the No. 2 team in the country so, you know, we don’t believe in moral victories, but at the same time, we’re glad we went out there and fought.”
Taulia Tagovailoa looked more like his old self.
Tagovailoa, the Terps’ redshirt junior quarterback, had set a career low in passing yards each of the past two weeks, combining for just 151 yards through the air at Wisconsin and Penn State. Against Ohio State, though, he looked far more comfortable, topping the 151-yard mark halfway through the second quarter. He would eventually go on to finish with 293 yards and two touchdowns, becoming Maryland’s all-time leading passer in the process.
Late in the first quarter, he delivered a beautiful downfield pass to junior wide receiver Jacob Copeland, the first time in a while that he made an accurate throw deep over the middle. The pass was dropped and holding was called on the play, but it was indicative of Tagovailoa’s impressive ability to maintain confidence after struggling as of late.
Also helping him was Maryland’s emphasis on the passing game. The Terps couldn’t establish the run against a physical Ohio State front, so offensive coordinator Dan Enos dialed up a wide variety of plays for Tagovailoa to work the ball around to his receivers and gave him plenty of leeway to let the ball fly downfield.
“I think we just did a better job of executing,” Tagovailoa said of the difference between Saturday and the two prior games. “We actually picked up our tempo a lot. We played fast and I think that’s what we’re good at, you know, that fits us best to play fast and get the ball out of our hands quick and, you know, opens up everything for us.”
Of course, Tagovailoa’s performance wasn’t without its bloopers as well. He very nearly threw a back-breaking interception on the goal line early and made a few more questionable throws.
Still, he hung in there and kept Maryland’s offense moving enough to stay in the game and make history. Down 10 in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa led his team on one of the best drives of his career, launching a perfect ball to junior wide receiver Rakim Jarrett for a 49-yard gain. He also got creative and improvised with his feet to find senior wideout Jeshaun Jones for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal.
“I know he went and he worked his tail off this week,” Locksley said. “You saw the competitive nature in him. Made plays in the air, threw the ball really well, made plays with his feet. He gave us a chance and that’s what you, that’s all you can ask of your quarterback.”
Tagovailoa had to leave the game after the last play from scrimmage, limping off and favoring his knee, but claimed after the game that it felt alright. If the injury proves to be serious enough to keep him out against Rutgers, redshirt junior Eric Najarian would likely start since redshirt freshman Billy Edwards Jr. was hurt against Penn State and was not dressed Saturday.
Another season passed by without a statement victory.
At 6-5, it’s hard to consider this season a serious improvement from last — at least in terms of wins and losses — even if Maryland beats Rutgers next weekend and bests its win total from its 2021 campaign.
Talent-wise, and in many cases mindset-wise, it’s clear that this team is better than last year’s. They went toe-to-toe with Michigan and Ohio State — the conference’s two best teams — showing resilience by bouncing back with a solid performance against the No. 2 team in the country following back-to-back weeks of non-competitiveness.
The games against Michigan and Ohio State were games that, in the moment, felt like a sign of true progress. And they are. There’s no doubting that the gap Locksley has constantly referred to between Maryland and the conference’s top teams has lessened. But, considering the talent on this year’s team, everything was primed for the Terps to pull off an upset and make a statement. That never came to fruition.
“Yeah, we had ‘em. We had them right where we wanted them, we just gotta finish,” Bennett said. “That’s the biggest thing, just gotta finish.”
Looking back at the Terps’ key games this season, one sticks out as a major missed opportunity: the two-point loss to Purdue. Given the way the schedule shook out, a win in that game would’ve set up a more than manageable path to eight regular-season wins. The loss, which came after the Michigan game, set up a situation where the Terps had to beat one of Wisconsin, Penn State or Ohio State to stay on track to make that happen.
That game was indicative of Maryland’s close grasps with a season-defining win. A major difference between a decent team and a good or great one is whether or not that team can make opponents pay for their mistakes. The Terps didn’t do that in any of their five losses, and in order to beat nationally ranked and, at many positions, more talented teams, they are going to have to do so. Michigan and Ohio State presented opportunities to do just that, and they couldn’t capitalize.
“It’s about wins and losses. It’s not about how close you are,” Locksley said. “So we still got a ways to go. As I told our team though, there’s just, there’s a small margin of error between the great teams and the good teams in this league. And, you know, for us to take that next step, we’ve got to be able to take that step, and that step is finding a way to win a game like this, not be close, find a way to win.”
There are a lot of positives to take away from a competitive loss to a national title contender. But, until those close losses turn into wins, Maryland can’t really say that it has turned the corner as a program.