Allegany Communications Sports
It was a significant but disappointing day in College Park on Saturday, and that it was significant for the eyes of a national television audience is no longer enough for Maryland football.
The disappointment must be the story of this day for the sake of future days in College Park; for on a day when Maryland was merely the afterthought while, at the same time, being the host, the Terps nearly beat undefeated and third-ranked Michigan before falling, 31-24, just as they have fallen short to Ohio State three times in the last five meetings.
Nearly and almost, though, aren’t nearly or almost good enough anymore for Maryland, and that is to Maryland’s credit. The Terps have made it that way under head coach Mike Locksley through the past four years, yet they continue to give away big games that could be breakthrough wins this program has lacked for 40 years, including through the last 34 games against nationally-ranked Big Ten opponents.
“When you have two turnovers, a (quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa) fumble-return for the touchdown on offense, the (intentional) grounding (for a game-clinching safety), just on the offensive side of the ball, we didn’t win the turnover battle,” Locksley said. “And as I’ve said, the good teams don’t beat themselves. And you know, (Tagovailoa) is a fighter. He’s a competitor. You can count on him. I know he’ll show up again next week the way we need him to and help lead us, but I’m really proud of the effort that he displayed today. We didn’t get the job done.”
Beginning with the opening Michigan possession when the Terps forced a three-and-out, to the first Maryland possession on which the Terps had to settle for a field goal, through fighting back from a 23-3 deficit behind Tagovailoa to create opportunities to lead in the fourth quarter, Maryland had chances, but once again could not overcome crucial mistakes by Tagovailoa.
After the Terps cut the lead to 23-17, in what has become a familiar sequence, Tagovailoa overthrew a wide-open touchdown along the Maryland sideline. Moments later, he overthrew his receiver for a Michigan interception that set up the final Wolverines touchdown.
Granted, the quarterback bar has been low in College Park for quite some time, but Tagovailoa is the best Maryland has had in a long time, and he’ll finish his career at Maryland in the school and Big Ten record books. Yet he makes critical mistakes in the biggest moments of the biggest games, consistently giving the other team points on turnovers, which has helped prevent his team from gaining a signature win or few that this program has lacked for four decades.
He will likely set the all-time Big Ten passing record this week, and he has helped Maryland become a legitimate Big Ten competitor, but what you see is what you get, as for the past three seasons he has been consistent in showing the good, the bad and the ugly on the biggest stages.
(Of course, we can also tag the Maryland staff and the transfer portal for the state of the offensive line and for the surrender of the running game — though run-blocking is easier to establish.)
As for the grounding call on Tagovailoa toward the end of the game that all but put the nail in the box, yes, it was a poor decision on his part. Then, again, when your life’s on the line and you’re backed up to the last inch of the end zone, you can act hastily.
That said, while grounding is a judgment call, as well as an unreviewable call, as Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt mentioned, it seemed to be a peculiar time in the most important moment of a season with so much on the line to have a discussion after the initial ruling of incomplete, and then reverse it to grounding and a game-clinching safety.
Certainly officiating did not cost Maryland this game, but it may have helped Michigan survive the game on that and other occasions, as Big Ten officiating clearly favors Big Ten establishment programs (in all sports) and was not about to prevent Michigan from being undefeated for next weekend’s match-up with Ohio State, which will be worth millions of dollars for the Big Ten Conference.
This perception gained even more validity on Saturday afternoon when the referee referred to Maryland over an open microphone as “Rutgers.” So, you know …
Which brings us to the red-headed step children of the Big Ten Conference: Maryland and Rutgers close their regular seasons this Saturday against each other. Both programs are markedly improved since joining the Big Ten, and both programs will be playing for their seventh win of the season and for a more attractive bowl invitation.
Since the outcome will affect neither Ohio State nor Michigan, all systems should be fair and square.
Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT