Faced with one of the toughest challenges it will see all season, Maryland football traveled to play at No. 4 Michigan on Saturday.
The Terps held their own against one of the top teams in the Big Ten but couldn’t pull off what would have been a program-altering win. It was there for the taking, but key mistakes were the difference between 4-0 and 3-1. Nonetheless, there were many positives to take from Maryland’s performance.
Taulia Tagovailoa had moments of dynamism against Michigan, throwing for 207 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 20 extra yards on a few gutsy scrambles. He made a few beautiful throws and for much of the game looked very poised and content with taking what the defense gave him. Unfortunately, he did show glimpses of the Tagovailoa Maryland fans have seen in past years, throwing untimely interceptions.
Tagovailoa’s first interception came with the Terps up by three points in the second quarter and driving on what promised to be a scoring drive. He underthrew Jacob Copeland, and while the pass should’ve been ruled incomplete because it hit the ground before the defender corralled it, it was still poor execution that killed Maryland’s momentum.
His second interception was a backbreaker, virtually sealing the win for the Wolverines. Having the ball with an opportunity to take the lead in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa threw a ball downfield into double coverage instead of hitting a wide-open Jeshaun Jones over the middle. Regardless of whether or not that pass was also dropped by the defender, it was a dubious throw in a critical juncture of the game.
After the second interception, Tagovailoa sat on the bench — in part due to injuries suffered earlier in the game — and backup Billy Edwards Jr. looked in command of the offense, leading the Terps down the field for a scoring drive. Maryland will hope that Tagovailoa doesn’t miss time because of his injuries, but if he has to, Edwards could be a satisfactory replacement.
Maryland’s running backs were pretty effective in their limited run against Michigan. Roman Hemby led the team with 16 carries for 48 yards, but Antwain Littleton II looked the best, rushing eight times for 39 yards and a touchdown. Whenever he had the ball in his hands, Littleton seemed to find a hole and make something happen.
If Tagovailoa is hampered moving forward, Littleton and Hemby could be the keys to the offense.
Questionably, Maryland seemed to stray away from the running game as the game developed, despite its success. Especially toward the end of the first half, more run plays could’ve used more clock and limited Michigan’s ability to put together a drive that ultimately gave it the lead heading into the intermission.
Jacob Copeland and Jeshaun Jones made the biggest impacts for the Terps yards-wise among receivers — Copeland had 52 and Jones had 48 on just two receptions.
Other than those two, Tai Felton had the biggest catch with an easy touchdown grab on a lob from Tagovailoa.
In all, however, Maryland’s wide receiver group did not have its best performance. For much of the latter half of the game, Tagovailoa was given what seemed like hours of time in the pocket but was unable to find anyone open downfield. For the second consecutive game, the highly-touted receiving corps the Terps have was unable to consistently generate separation.
In the fourth game of the season, Dontay Demus Jr. had just 2 receptions for 12 yards. He’s been almost nonexistent this season, and while there is still two-thirds of the season left for him to make an impact, discussions should be had about whether or not he will ever be able to return to his pre-injury self.
In a scary moment in the third quarter, Rakim Jarrett went down with a head injury and was ruled out for the rest of the game. His status for this week and beyond is unknown.
Maryland’s tight ends had their best overall performance of the season against Michigan, totaling six receptions for 108 yards.
CJ Dippre has emerged as a legitimate pro prospect, showcasing his unique athleticism for his size with an impressive 26-yard reception that saw the six-foot-five, 260-pound sophomore hurdle a Michigan defender. He also caught a touchdown late in the fourth quarter from Edwards.
Corey Dyches was also good in the passing game, leading the team with 60 receiving yards. He also had a big reception, gaining 44 yards and setting up Felton’s touchdown.
The most notable blunder for the Terps’ tight ends was undoubtedly Dyches’ key drop in the third quarter. On the same play when Tagovailoa went down injured, Dyches had a potential first down hit him in the hands and fell to the turf, leading to a punt instead of a potential field goal or touchdown.
While the drop casts a shadow over the overall performance, the tight ends were good against the Wolverines.
The Terps’ offensive line was nothing short of spectacular against a Wolverines squad that has a reputation for beating its opponents in the trenches. The five-man group pushed around Michigan’s front seven, giving Tagovailoa plenty of time to distribute the ball and allowing the running backs to be effective as well.
Maryland head coach Mike Locksley has called the offensive line his most improved group from a year ago, and the collection of experienced blockers proved why against a top-five team on the road.
Perhaps most importantly, the group was called for just one penalty — a false start late in the fourth quarter. Discipline has been a problem with the unit all season long, but the offensive line silenced those critics Saturday.
Against a talented Michigan offensive line, the Terps’ defensive line held its own for much of the game when it came to defending the pass. Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy was forced out of the pocket a few times and had to use his scrambling ability to evade sacks, disrupting his comfortability.
Defending the run, however, saw the opposite result. Michigan running back Blake Corum exploded for 243 rushing yards and two touchdowns. His longest runs are not necessarily on the defensive line — once he beats them it’s up to the linebackers and secondary to make the stop — but there were simply too many holes and uncovered gaps Saturday. His touchdown to end the half wasn’t an obvious blunder by the team, though, as the unit was not given a chance to get set as the Wolverines pushed the tempo despite Maryland still having three timeouts to use.
That being said, the defensive line did a decent job clogging the middle of the field and forcing Corum to the outside, but unfortunately he saw success there.
Without Ruben Hyppolite, the Terps’ linebackers were down a man and called upon freshman Caleb Wheatland to get more playing time than he has in any of the prior three games. He looked comfortable, making six tackles — one for a loss.
His fellow freshman Jaishawn Barham once again looked like the best linebacker on the field for Maryland, leading the team with eight tackles.
Vandarius Cowan also made a huge play, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Terps.
However, as was the case with the defensive line, the linebackers’ inability to defend the run was costly. The lack of production off the edge allowed Corum to break into the secondary, exposing opportunities for big runs.
Maryland’s secondary dared McCarthy to throw the deep ball, and for most of the game he was inconsistent, often overthrowing his target. The Wolverines did connect on a few passes downfield, but it was not a dominant performance by any stretch of the imagination. Plus, the first passing touchdown wasn’t really the secondary’s fault, as it’s hard to stop a team starting inside the 10-yard line after an unexpected turnover.
On many of the connections over the middle of the field, Michigan utilized pick plays, which are technically illegal but rarely called by officials. As frustrating as it may be, the Terps need to navigate those plays and learn how to make them less effective.
The biggest negative of the secondary’s play, like the rest of the defense, was its inability to seal off Corum’s rushes on the outside. Whenever Michigan’s running back would bounce a play to the outside, it seemed like he made at least one player miss and on multiple occasions broke off big runs that set the Wolverines up to score.
The Terps played very well on defense against Michigan — especially in the first three quarters — but were unable to make the big plays needed, like the interceptions Michigan came up with, to win a close game on the road.
Saturday’s matchup marked the second consecutive week with a turnover by Tai Felton on a kickoff return, and it happened not 10 seconds into the game. On the opening kick, Felton misplayed the ball and it hit his facemask, bouncing forward into the hands of Michigan’s coverage team. Set up inside the 10-yard line, the Wolverines led by a touchdown by the time eight seconds had elapsed.
On the other hand, kicker Chad Ryland was sensational, hitting two kicks from over 50 yards. He has established himself as one of the most reliable kickers Maryland has had in years and is one of the nation’s best.
Colton Spangler was also solid on punts, landing all three of his attempts inside the 20-yard line.
Ryland and Spangler played up to an A+ rating Saturday, but Felton’s error cost the Terps seven crucial points that ended up being the difference.