Maryland football had gotten better as games went on to begin this season — slow starts had been its identity. But that flipped Saturday in its Big Ten opener at Michigan State.
The Spartans’ first drive resulted in an ill-advised Noah Kim interception — one of two forced Maryland takeaways in the opening half and five in the game — and the Terps returned the favor with a nine play, 45-yard drive, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown catch by Sean Greeley, a linebacker.
Maryland scored on each of its next two drives, extending its lead to 21-0 not even halfway through the second period. Despite a mistake-filled second half, the Terps held on, 31-9, to improve to 4-0 on the season.
“We talked all week about getting off to a fast start, and that’s what we were able to do,” Maryland head coach Mike Locksley said. “The defense came up big early on with turnovers, and we were able to convert those with scores.”
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa had his way early against a banged up and inexperienced Michigan State (2-2) secondary, totaling three touchdowns — two through the air — on Maryland’s first three drives. Tyrese Chambers hauled in a 12-yard score on the second drive for the first touchdown of his Maryland career.
The Spartans, though, still reeling and trying to rediscover themselves on the heels of a 34-point loss to Washington and the dismissal of head coach Mel Tucker, had themselves to blame for the 21-0 hole.
On its second drive, Michigan State drove all the way to the 1-yard line, but could not punch it in. On its ensuing possession, another mistake proved costly when Greeley, a former walk-on, forced a fumble which was recovered by Donnell Brown.
“We put an emphasis on getting hands on the ball and taking a lot of shots on the ball,” Greeley said. “I kind of put my head down and got lucky and knocked the ball out.”
Michigan State eventually kicked a field goal to cut the lead to 18, but the Terps’ offense could not take advantage of their numerous chances to put the game away. After a promising drive, Jack Howes hooked a 40-yard field goal attempt.
On Maryland’s next possession, Tagovailoa, who didn’t look the same after a quick trip to the medical tent late in the first half, was intercepted in the end zone. A nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive for the Spartans ensued, but a failed two-point conversion left the game at 21-9.
The Spartans should have narrowed the gap to five, but a self-inflicted wound turned the momentum right back over to the Terps. Montorie Foster Jr. found himself all alone for what would have been a 75-yard touchdown, but Kim overthrew his receiver.
Kim was replaced by redshirt freshman Katin Houser when the Spartans took over down 15 midway through the fourth quarter, and led them all the way to Maryland’s 8-yard line. But he showed off his inexperience, and threw one right into the breadbasket of Tarheeb Still, all but putting the game out of reach. Octavian Smith Jr. put an exclamation point on the game with a 31-yard touchdown.
Maryland held on Saturday, and big plays on the defensive side of the ball gave the Terps reasons to feel positive. But as a whole, Maryland benefited from Michigan State’s mistakes just as much as it did from its own positive moments.
“You know, offensively, we were a little off today, just missing on some things,” Locksley said. “But defensively, early on, the turnovers were big. What I’d like to see us do is just get off the field a little bit better on third down.”
Three things to know
1. A flipped game script. Most assumed Maryland would not find continued success with sluggish starts, and the Terps heard that message, getting out to a three-touchdown lead not even halfway through the second quarter. But in the second half, finding the end zone went from a sure thing to a chore.
2. A chance for a historic start. Maryland is 4-0, and with Indiana coming to College Park next weekend, the Terps have a genuine opportunity to be 5-0 for the first time since 2001.
3. Maryland still has mistakes to clean up. The Terps have shown glimpses of excellence in their first four games, but on Saturday, they equaled that with head-scratching moments, something that could derail them against the top opponents remaining on their schedule.
“The best part about this is that the locker room was still disappointed a little bit that we didn’t finish the way we like to, and there’s some things that we need to get cleaned up,” Locksley said.