COLLEGE PARK — Mike Locksley has heard it for years about ‘those’ teams, the ones that perennially reside at the top of the Big Ten.
“Will it happen?” “How can you compete with them?” “Sure, six wins are nice, but can you ever knock them off?” They’re all questions Maryland’s coach has received in one form or another.
On this clear, chilly Saturday evening, the Terrapins went blow-for-blow with Ohio State, the second-ranked team in the country. Maryland tallied 402 yards to the Buckeyes’ 401, held the ball for only 30 seconds less, ran only five fewer plays, and had just one more penalty yard. By those metrics, it was a statistical draw.
The Terrapins put on their best performance of the season a week after their worst performance. That may seem like an odd statement after what ended up being a 43-30 loss to the Buckeyes. But the differences between the two were not laid bare like they were in their last meeting, a 66-17 Ohio State rout in Columbus.
No, the difference a year later was in the margins — a blocked punt here, a good kickoff return there — not systemic failures that had been an issue for Terrapin teams past.
“I saw growth. You know, when people say, ‘Where’s the growth?’ Point to today,” Locksley said. “Point to days like today … not because they’re close, but to how we competed against those teams.”
After last week’s loss to Penn State, Maryland defenders emphasized how they needed to bring what makes them successful after halftime into the first 30 minutes. Even in a 30-0 beatdown in State College, only three of those points were scored in the second half. But that’s not helpful when down an insurmountable amount.
The Terrapins reversed the trend against the Buckeyes, holding the second-best scoring offense in America to 159 yards and 10 points in the first half.
“What you saw today was us saying, ‘Let’s not worry about scheming these guys.’ And it goes back to what the philosophy was going into this game,” Locksley said. “This wasn’t going to be a scheme game. This was going to be a mano-e-mano, stand up and fight the guy in front of you, and win your individual battles. And defensively today, those guys, they played desperate. They had nothing to lose. Our DBs challenged a really talented receiver group. And that’s how we felt we needed to play to give ourselves a chance.”
The third quarter began a different chapter. After Heisman Trophy contender C.J. Stroud was stymied most of the afternoon, with only one passing touchdown after five last week at Indiana, the Buckeyes went heavy on the ground.
Ohio State running back Dallan Hayden scored two touchdowns in the quarter — after Maryland had only given up 16 points in that frame all season — while adding another in the fourth. Without Miyan Williams due to injury and with TreVeyon Henderson struggling after missing two games, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day switched to Hayden. The freshman delivered with those scores and 146 yards.
Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa looked like himself, or the playmaking version Terrapins fans have enjoyed in the last two seasons, for the first time since reaggravating a knee injury in mid-October against Indiana. The Hawaiian completed his first 11 passes, finishing 26-of-36 for 293 yards along with two touchdowns and one rushing score.
“I was glad to see [No.] 3 look like the old 3 today … I thought that he had that look. I know he went and worked his tail off this week,” Locksley said. “You saw the competitive nature in him — made plays in the air, threw the ball really well, made plays with his feet. He gave us a chance.”
He limped off the field after Maryland’s last attempt at the upset, a strip sack at his own goal line down six points in the final minute that turned into an Ohio State touchdown and the game’s final margin. Locksley said he was hopeful it was just a bruise and nothing structural on the same right knee his quarterback has banged up multiple times this season. Tagovailoa confirmed as much after the game.
“Obviously, it’s been bothering me the whole season, but I think it just hit the ground real hard,” Tagovailoa said “I think it’s just a bad bruise.”
On a day when he passed Scott Milanovich to become the program’s all-time passing yards leader, Tagovailoa orchestrated what may be the magnum opus of his Maryland tenure.
After Hayden’s third score put Ohio State up 33-23, Tagovailoa set Maryland off on a 2:40 adventure that would enthrall the largest SECU Stadium crowd of the season, regardless what shade of red they were wearing.
The seven play, 74 yard excursion, highlighted the playmaking talents we’ve come to expect from this era of Terrapins football: Reciever Jeshaun Jones using his mobility on a 16 yard rush to the right, Tagovailoa dropping a rainbowed ball right into Rakim Jarrett’s breadbasket down the left sideline inside the 10, and Roman Hemby pounding his way to within three feet of the end zone.
“We’ve got to make use of opportunities,” the quarterback said, “and it’s kind of like a die-on-your-sword type of thing.”
Tagovailoa took the snap, evaded pressure, scrambled all the way to the far sideline, and just before going out-of-bounds found Jones standing amidst three Buckeyes defenders for the touchdown, capping a sensational drive.
“It’s a sprint-out play. A play we added in because it complements our other sprint-out plays,” Tagovailoa recounted. “We kind of overload the field side. And I just scrambled, and I think they covered up really well, but we just kept playing. And Jeshaun did a really good job.”
One of the best playmakers during his Maryland tenure also was rejuvenated against Ohio State. Dontay Demus Jr. had his best game of 2022, grabbing five balls for 67 yards.
“The old Dante was running by people. The Dante right now is using his size as an advantage,” Locksley said “Lia gave him 50-50 balls, and he went up and made big catches.”
“He’s always been doing that his whole life,” Tagovailoa said of Demus “And I’m happy he made some plays today and, you know, those are the plays he always makes in practice and his confidence is always high. He always believes in himself, and so do we.”
There’s no more opportunities left this season against the Big Ten’s top tier. But the Terrapins more than acquitted themselves both against Michigan in September and Ohio State here in November - the two undefeated teams that will play next week for the conference’s de facto spot in the College Football Playoff.
I’m proud of the way that we fought. I still feel that the best is the head for this football family. And we’re gonna finish this thing out the right way at home next week … and continue to work hard to move the program forward in the right direction.”
• George Gerbo can be reached at email@example.com.
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