Taulia Tagovailoa close to perfect as Maryland routs Charlotte

CHARLOTTE – The Maryland Terrapins took a nonconference road trip and found a defense that had no answers for their prolific attack. The Charlotte 49ers offered their Big Ten visitors a stage on which quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and the talent around him could shine, and Maryland headed back to College Park with a commanding 56-21 victory.

Tagovailoa settled into an efficient rhythm, completing one pass after another and launching accurate balls to his receivers ready to race into the end zone. The redshirt junior quarterback had a near-perfect first half, connecting on 20 of 22 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns. His only two incompletions in the half came on a jump ball in the end zone that a Charlotte defender intercepted and a pass dropped by one of his receivers. Before the teams headed in for halftime, Tagovailoa had already notched a career high in touchdown passes, and Maryland (2-0) was well on its way to a lopsided win.

“He’s his own animal,” wide receiver Jacob Copeland said of Tagovailoa. “When he gets in his mode di lui and he’s feeling good about the game or whatever situation he’s in, he’s going to make the best of it.”

The Terps’ offensive unit flashed its promise all afternoon at Jerry Richardson Stadium, a small venue that hosted 12,614 fans Saturday. Charlotte didn’t register a defensive stop until late in the second quarter when Comanche Francisco, battling Dontay Demus Jr. on a slightly underthrown pass, secured the interception in the end zone. Before that, Tagovailoa led his team on five consecutive touchdown drives, and the Terps easily seized control of this game.

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To score Maryland’s sixth touchdown of the afternoon, Tagovailoa corralled a high snap and raced four yards into the end zone inside the left pylon. Carried by momentum from the run, he continued on a few steps, lifted his arm in celebration and slipped to the ground, grabbing his right leg. With the Terps’ history of injuries at quarterback, the image of Tagovailoa on the turf in pain surely prompted concern among a scarred fan base, but Tagovailoa relieved that anxiety as he jogged off the field.

When asked about his thoughts when his starting quarterback went down, Coach Michael Locksley said, “If I keep it PG-13, I was like, ‘Holy -,’” and then paused to reference a missing word.

Tagovailoa was dealing with a cramp during that drive, “and then I had to run the ball,” he said. “You know how that goes. Everything just locked up. Happy I got in the end zone before it did. “

He received IV fluids and said after the game that he feels fine. Tagovailoa had no reason to take the field again, given Maryland’s 42-14 lead at the time of his third-quarter departure, but he returned for just one play and delivered a 25-yard pass when backup Billy Edwards Jr. had to exit briefly . Those few seconds of action provided even more reassurance.

Charlotte (0-3) gave up 559 yards in its previous game against William & Mary of the Football Championship Subdivision, and the Terps capitalized on their opportunity to showcase even more offensive firepower. They finished with 617 yards of total offense, with players from all over the depth chart contributing. That was expected of Maryland against the 49ers, who played in the FCS in 2013 and 2014 before moving to Conference USA. This rare road trip for a Big Ten program to a school from outside the major conferences marked the first of a home-and-home series, with Charlotte playing in College Park next season.

Even as the Terps cruised to the win, the Maryland defense had lapses that prompt concern with tougher opposition on the schedule. The Terps have one more nonconference game – against SMU at home next week – before they dive into the Big Ten slate on the road at Michigan.

Charlotte played without its top two quarterbacks, but with Xavier Williams, the third-string option, primarily leading the unit, the Terps still gave up 388 yards. On the 49ers’ first offensive possession, they converted three fourth-down attempts, including one on a pass interference call, on their way to a touchdown. At the start of the second quarter, the Terps allowed a 50-yard reception followed by a 19-yard touchdown pass to Victor Tucker.

Williams didn’t make any major mistakes but completed only 19 of 35 passes for 191 yards. Still, Maryland struggled to pressure the quarterback, and the Terps’ defense has yet to force a turnover this season. The Terps played without starting cornerback Tarheeb Still, who didn’t travel to Charlotte after cutting his finger di lui in a “freak accident in the locker room,” Locksley said.

The special teams unit secured Charlotte’s first-quarter onside kick attempt, which was ultimately nullified because of a penalty on the 49ers, and after the pair of early scores, Maryland’s defensive effort improved. The Terps continued extending their lead and kept Charlotte out of the end zone until midway through the fourth quarter.

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The Terps’ offensive brilliance overshadowed the defensive miscues. After Maryland’s running game showed promise in the opener, redshirt freshman Antwain Littleton II bulldozed up the middle of the field for a 59-yard score early against Charlotte.

Copeland, a transfer from Florida, had a quiet Maryland debut, then emerged as a strong receiving option Saturday. Copeland scored the Terps’ opening touchdown and added another score in the second quarter, finishing with a team-high 110 receiving yards. Fellow wide receiver Jeshaun Jones, back for his fifth year after tearing his ACL last season, also had two touchdowns in the first half.

“I think they caught everything today,” Tagovailoa said of his receivers.

Tagovailoa had an up-and-down showing in the opener, throwing for 290 yards but not completing a touchdown pass for the first time since his Maryland debut in October 2020. He rebounded in emphatic fashion, registering the best completion percentage (27 for 31 for 87.1 percent) in Maryland’s history when players attempt at least 15 passes.

As Edwards took control of the offense in Tagovailoa’s absence, Maryland continued to cruise. He led the Terps on two additional touchdown drives, each capped by scores from young players – first sophomore running back Colby McDonald’s 49-yard rush and then a 17-yard completion to freshman wide receiver Octavian Smith Jr. With under four minutes to go, Maryland logged its first punt of the day. Soon after, the Terrapins left with a win – and a healthy Tagovailoa on the flight home – hoping this powerful offense will translate to bigger stages.

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