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Led by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland football smothers Charlotte, 56-21

Maryland moves to 2-0 on the season with the dominant nonconference road victory.

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Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Twitter: @TerpsFootball

Maryland football starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was having an impeccable first half.

With about five minutes to play in the second quarter and following consecutive pre-snap penalties, Tagovailoa was faced with second-and-goal from the 16-yard line. The pocket quickly collapsed on Tagovailoa, with two Charlotte pass rushers tailing the redshirt junior play caller.

It didn’t matter for Tagovailoa, though, who evaded the rush with swagger and flicked the ball to redshirt senior wideout Jeshaun Jones with not a defender in sight.

The play gave the Terps a commanding 35-14 second-quarter lead and summed up what Tagovailoa can do at his best.

Tagovailoa finished the game completing 27-of-31 passes for 391 yards and 5 total touchdowns in Maryland’s assertive 56-21 road win over Charlotte on Saturday afternoon.

“I thought [Tagovailoa] played really well,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “A week ago he came in the locker room and really felt like he didn’t play well because he didn’t throw any touchdowns, but I still thought he played well enough for us to win a week ago. Today, our receivers really stepped up, made some big plays early. Lia did a really job of ball location on some of the deep shots that we’ve kind of, didn’t have the timing down with a week ago. So it was good to see us, as I say, make that jump from week one to week two on the offensive side of the ball.”

The Terps’ first drive was clinical and eerily similar to their first drive against Buffalo last week. It only took Maryland five plays to drive 79 yards for a touchdown against the 49ers; last week’s opening drive for seven points against the Bulls was five plays for 78 yards.

Maryland showed off its prolific passing game right away, as Tagovailoa completed respective back-to-back 14-yard passes to sophomore wideout Tai Felton and Jones on its first two plays. Following a couple of solid runs from Roman Hemby, Tagovailoa found Jacob Copeland in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown. The Florida transfer was quiet in week one, but he swiftly snuck through 49ers’ coverage and made a falling grab to give the Terps a 7-0 lead.

However, the other side of the ball did not set the tone in the same manner.

Assisted by a pass interference penalty, Maryland allowed Charlotte to convert its first three fourth-down conversion attempts. The 0-2 49ers looked methodical early, using 15 plays and over seven minutes for a 75-yard touchdown march. Junior wide receiver Grant DuBose burned redshirt junior cornerback Deonte Banks for a pretty 11-yard touchdown, tying the game at seven.

Seemingly playing with house money, Charlotte head coach Will Healy decided to roll the dice with an onside kick following the touchdown — a risky but applaudable decision. The 49ers were flagged for kick-catch interference, though, giving Maryland starting field position at Charlotte’s 32-yard line.

The Terps quickly took advantage, and Tagovailoa continued a near perfect start with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jones — who juked his way into the end zone — to put the Terps back in front, 14-7.

Following its first defensive stop of the game, Maryland’s offense continued to roll. While it was Hemby showing home-run ability out of the backfield last week, his redshirt freshman counterpart Antwain Littleton II showed he could do the same Saturday, bursting through the seams for a 59-yard touchdown. Maryland possessed a 21-7 first-quarter lead after just three offensive drives.

An early lead of that caliber should be enough to put Charlotte — which was ranked No. 131 out of 131 FBS teams in The Athletic’s weekly ranking — away. But, third-string quarterback Xavier Williams continued to eviscerate Maryland’s secondary. Williams completed a 50-yard pass to Elijah Spencer and followed that up immediately with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Victor Tucker.

Maryland’s pass defense was missing starting cornerback Tarheeb Still — who did not travel to Charlotte according to The Washington Post’s Emily Giambalvo — but its first-half performance is still a cause for concern.

“He’s injured,” Locksley said of Still. “We’ll know a little bit more on Monday. He [ended up] cutting his finger. So yeah, freak accident in the locker room that we’ll get more on his status when we get back to see where he is.”

Luckily for the Terps, it had Tagovailoa and his new weapon Copeland on the other side of the ball.

Tagovailoa connected with a wide-open Copeland for the pair’s second touchdown of the day — a 45-yarder. Maryland took a 28-14 lead with about 13 minutes to play in the first half, and Tagovailoa had three touchdowns and only one incomplete pass, a drop by Felton.

Maryland’s defense finished the half strong, and Jones’ second touchdown regained Maryland’s three-touchdown lead. Tagovailoa made one mistake with an end-zone interception late in the first half, but it was a blip on the radar of an otherwise special day.

The Terps had their peaks and valleys in the first half — earning 403 yards of offense but also committing six penalties — en route to a 35-14 halftime lead.

After a Charlotte punt to start the second half, Tagovailoa led the Terps on a lengthy 15-play, 83-yard drive that lasted more than seven minutes. The drive was capped off by a Tagovailoa four-yard touchdown rush to give the Terps a 42-14 lead, but the worry was larger after the play.

Tagovailoa appeared to tweak his foot celebrating but walked off the field under his own power following a few moments on the ground. Tagovailoa seemed to escape major injury, which would have likely ended Maryland’s chance at any success in 2022.

“Yeah, he’s great,” Locksley said of Tagovailoa. “Cramping up, had to go in and get an IV.”

Backup quarterback Billy Edwards Jr. relieved Tagovailoa of his duties toward the end of the third quarter. There was no reason for Maryland’s starter to check in, and his one fourth-quarter pass solidified his health.

Sophomore running back Colby McDonald — showing he can contribute big plays too — punched in a long touchdown of his own on Edwards’ first drive, extending Maryland’s lead to an insurmountable 35 points.

Edwards Jr. and Charlotte fourth-stringer Trexler Ivey traded passing touchdowns in the fourth quarter, as Maryland wrapped up a blowout victory without breaking a sweat to end the game.

Three things to know

1. A career day for Tagovailoa. Maryland’s star quarterback continued to rise in the program’s ranks, as he now checks in at fifth all-time in passing yards and third all-time in passing touchdowns in Maryland history. Saturday was also Tagovailoa’s first career game with four passing touchdowns, tearing apart a Charlotte defense that had no business hanging with the Terps. Tagovailoa completed 87.1% of his passes as well, the highest single-game completion percentage in Maryland history.

“Coach always talks about seeing difference of a team from like game one or two, or like the first couple games,” Tagovailoa said. “And I think with the way our team is going, I think we’re [headed] in the right direction... coach talks about six seconds, that’s the average play, time of a play. So we just got to lock in for six seconds. Whatever we have to do as a team, everyone just lock in on their job. After that six seconds is gone, it’s gone. So I think it gives us a lot of confidence, so we just got to continue to prepare.”

2. Welcome to Maryland, Jacob Copeland. Florida’s leading receiver in 2021 came to Maryland to be “with the guys” instead of “the guy,” understanding that there are a lot of mouths to feed on the Maryland offense. Copeland did not do much against Buffalo, securing only one reception for six yards. Copeland’s massive game against Charlotte only further proved how many different options this Maryland receiver room has.

“I know I can’t get frustrated at no time,” Copeland said. “Like, cause I played ball a long time...every weekend ain’t gonna be your calling, your number. And I seen today it was my calling, my number, and I felt real confident about everything and my teammates felt confident in me, too.”

3. Maryland’s pass defense needs to tighten up ahead of SMU. Despite not having a true impact on Saturday's outcome, Maryland’s secondary still provided some cause for speculation. Most notably, Charlotte’s four-play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter saw the 49ers hurt the Terps’ defense through the air. The 49ers also had a chance for a massive trick-play touchdown in the third quarter but could not take advantage of Maryland’s secondary breakdown.

“Not concerned about our defensive output,” Locksley said. “Obviously, we’d love to have more turnovers. Those come with the opportunities that present themselves. We continue to stress the importance of trying to get takeaways, but one thing I think we did a good job on defense was limiting the big plays.”

Maryland plays SMU next week, who has a lethal passing offense led by quarterback Tanner Mordecai. The Terps cannot afford the same mistakes in week three if they are to enter Big Ten play undefeated.