As Maryland football exited the field following its overtime comeback victory over Minnesota, players and coaches alike went over to congratulate quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa on his performance.
Head coach Mike Locksley pulled the sophomore in for a hug, his arm around his shoulder. “Hey three! Hey three! That’s some good shit boy!” wide receiver Jeshaun Jones yelled as he ran over to thump chests with his teammate.
Players and coaches continued to go up to Tagovailoa with dap-ups and words of praise, but it wasn’t until he left the turf that the true celebration commenced.
“Three! Three! Three! Three! Three!” the team chanted in unison as Tagovailoa approached the locker room. As soon as he crossed the threshold, the screams and cheers grew even louder as the Terps stormed the entrance, jumping up and down in excitement, eager to embrace their quarterback.
Tagovailoa led Maryland with 453 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns in the dramatic 45-44 win, a game the Terrapins entered as 19.5-point underdogs. He went 26-of-35 for 394 yards and three touchdowns through the air, along with 59 yards and two touchdowns on eight rushing attempts.
His nearly 400 passing yards were the 10th most in a single game in school history and the most since Danny O’Brien had 417 yards against NC State in 2010. And Tagovailoa was also the first Terrapin quarterback with at least 300 yards in the air since Caleb Rowe in 2013.
“He balled out,” defensive lineman Lawtez Rogers said. “I’m really excited for him and his career here. He’s going to be a special player. I’m sure of it, he’s going to be a special player.”
The moment was never too big for the sophomore in his second collegiate start. Whether he was slinging the ball inside the pocket, firing a throw on the run, or taking the ball on the ground himself, Tagovailoa seemed unstoppable as he guided his team to victory Friday night.
He saved his most electrifying play of the night for the overtime period, in which he took it upon himself to give Maryland the game-winning touchdown.
On first-and-goal, he faked a handoff to running back Jake Funk and rolled to his right with a defender at his back. Tagovailoa said the team expected the Golden Gophers to be in a man defense, so it had planned a slip-out with Dontay Demus Jr. The quarterback saw the wide receiver draw his defending corner to the back of the end zone, creating a hole.
Tagovailoa quickly took advantage of the open space and took off towards the goal line, extending his arm out with the football as he knocked down the pylon and secured the score.
Though it wasn’t as big of an aspect of his skillset in high school, the sophomore showed that type of running ability in key moments throughout the contest.
With seven minutes to go in the first quarter, Tagovailoa took the snap on first-and-10 at the 39-yard line. He took a few steps back as multiple Minnesota defensive linemen charged his way, then spun out of the pocket to the left, sprinting out of the reach of multiple defenders. The quarterback then took off down the sideline and ran into the end zone with ease for a 39-yard score to put Maryland up 14-0.
“Wow, that’s amazing! He just did that,” Rogers recalled him and his teammates saying as they watched the play unfold. “In the first quarter we saw glimpses of the great things that he’s able to do, especially at a young age.”
Tagovailoa also impressed with his passing ability as he read the defense to find his receivers in just the right spots throughout the game.
With Maryland trailing Minnesota 38-21 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the quarterback took the snap on first-and-10 at the 15-yard line and set this feet in the pocket. He quickly let off a rocket towards the end zone, where the ball fell perfectly into Demus’ hands to shorten the deficit to 10 points.
“He’s so smart in the pocket,” said Funk, who connected with the sophomore for an eight-yard receiving touchdown to open the night. “He does a great job identifying pressures. He’s a game manager, along with him just balling out in the passing game. ... Today was the day he came out and really showed what he can do for us.”
Demus’ score kicked off a 17-point fourth quarter comeback from the Terrapins, who became the only team in college football this season to do so in the final period of play.
Facing a third-and-6 situation at the 41-yard line on the following offensive drive, Tagovailoa spun to his left past an opposing lineman and got to work. He ran around 10 yards and continued to fool defenders as he threw a dart, mid-run, to freshman wide receiver Rakim Jarrett around the 50-yard line.
While the world of college football was taken aback by Tagovailoa’s performance, head coach Mike Locksley and the Terrapins weren’t at all surprised. They were more shocked by the sophomore’s lackluster showing in the team’s opening week loss to Northwestern, in which he threw three interceptions.
“What you guys saw is what we saw out of him all camp long,” Locksley said. “It was great for him to be able to bounce back and do that here at home in the Shell and play at a really high level when we needed him to do it most.”
For Tagovailoa, it wasn’t about proving himself to anyone. When he was asked postgame if he felt like he had “silenced the doubters,” the sophomore did a double-take, smiled and chuckled.
“Ah man, I’m not too worried about that,” he said. “I’m just happy that our team made a decision to bounce back. It’s just a team effort. For myself, the big thing is that I just do my job and we win the game.”
As he took questions from the media, Tagovailoa wore his brother Tua’s Miami Dolphins jersey. Their family is known publicly for being extremely close, with the two brothers each lending their support to the other at all times. But much of Tagovailoa’s young career so far has been in the shadow of Tua, with him often referred to as the NFL quarterback’s younger brother off the bat.
On Friday night, however, Tagovailoa made a name for himself, marking the start of his own legacy at his own program.
In addition to cementing his name in the Maryland record books with his performance, the Ewa Beach, Hawaii, native became just the third Big Ten player over the last 20 seasons to record 350 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in a game. Dwayne Haskins and Zak Kustok are the other two, doing so in 2018 and 2001, respectively; both were in their third season and entered the NFL draft that offseason.
Nothing is ever set in stone when it comes to the success of Maryland quarterbacks, but one thing is certain: Tagovailoa has officially made his presence known on the national stage.