- The Washington Times
Saturday, November 27, 2021

Mike Locksley likes to say “the best is ahead” when talking about his Maryland football program.

The third-year head coach will finally get a glimpse into what that future could look like during this holiday season.

“I told our veteran players…this was going to be my Christmas gift to them if they came up here and took victory,” Locksley said.

Maryland will play in a bowl game for the first time in five years as the Terrapins won on the road in their final regular-season game, beating Rutgers 40-16 Saturday.

“I came here to build a program that our former players, that all of our fans could be proud of. This is just one step,” Locksley said.

“We want this to become the standard.”

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa provided the engine for his team all afternoon in New Jersey. The junior finished 21 of 30, throwing for 312 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for a score. Sophomore tight end Corey Dyches caught two of those touchdowns, and senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis rushed for a career-high 152 yards and back-to-back scores in the fourth quarter to secure Maryland’s first bowl game trip in five years.

“I’m still, not in shock, but I can’t believe it,” a jubilant Fleet-Davis said after the win. “I’m ready for [a bowl], and I can’t wait to experience it.”

The win makes the Terrapins (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) the Big Ten Conference’s ninth bowl-eligible school. It’s Maryland’s first postseason experience since losing to Boston College in the 2016 Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.

“Teams that go to bowls have more opportunities to develop their team,” Locksley said, “and that’s what these next practices and these next few weeks will be all about.”

Third-down success isn’t something that’s been seen consistently from Maryland this season. But the Terps converted nine of 15 chances on the day to sustain multiple scoring drives.

On the game’s first drive, Tagovailoa found senior receiver Brian Cobbs down the middle on a third-and-nine from the Terps’ 38 for 20 yards and a first down. The Terps would convert again on third down three plays later, and Dyches hauled in his first touchdown of the day immediately after.

Two plays after converting on a third-and six on Maryland’s second drive, Tagovailoa found Cobbs wide open on the right side of the field for a 38-yard touchdown. The extra point was blocked and returned for two points by Rutgers, but the score was Tagovailoa’s 23rd of the season through the air, moving him into second place on Maryland’s single-season all-time passing touchdown list.

Tagovailoa would set one more record to cap his spectacular statistical regular season. On an 18-yard pass in the second quarter to Cobbs, Tagovailoa eclipsed Maryland’s single-season record for passing yards. He finishes the season with 3,550, besting by 51 the previous mark held by Scott Milanovich since 1993.

Also in the second quarter, Maryland got the game’s lone turnover. It came off a hard, clean hit on Vedral by Maryland senior safety Jordan Mosley as he threw. The ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked by senior cornerback Jakorian Bennett. 

Three-straight Maryland three-and-outs after the opening two Terrapin scores gave way to a drive that showed the yin-and-yang of Tagovailoa’s season.

He completed a third-and-seven to senior receiver Carlos Carriere for 20 yards to the Scarlet Knights’ 41. The next play provided a setback: A flea-flicker attempt that was nearly blown up from the snap and that resulted in Tagovailoa committing an intentional grounding foul.

The Hawaii native composed himself, however, and delivered a 26-yard strike on third-and-20 to sophomore receiver Rakim Jarrett to keep the drive going. And two plays later, he called his own number on a play-action fake, rushing 10 yards to the corner of the end zone for a score and a 20-2 lead that Maryland would take into the half.

Rutgers (5-7, 2-7) would score on their first two drives of the second half to show some signs of life on offense, but was held by Maryland’s defense to two-of-11 on third down and failed to convert on four fourth-down tries. Two of those fourth down stops for the Terrapins came inside the five yard line.

“I thought we did a really good job in situational defense,” Locksley said. “Our guys made the plays when we needed them to be made, especially down there in fourth-and-goal line [situations].”

Maryland will now await their bowl destination, which won’t be known until the regular season wraps up for all Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Likely landing spots include the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Guaranteed Rate Bowl, and a return to the Quick Lane Bowl.

But for now, the achievement of reaching any bowl destination is something Maryland players and coaches can use to further Locksley’s goals for the program.

“The next step, for us, is to build upon what we’ve established. The culture, the identity,” Locksley said. “We have young players that I think gives us a bright future.” 

“I hope this turns into the new normal,” Fleet-Davis added. “Hopefully we bring in recruits, they see what we’re doing here and how the program is changing, and they want to join us.”

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

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