The good, bad, ugly: analyzing Maryland football through nonconference

Friday night Maryland took to the field underneath the lights at SECU Stadium for their final non-conference game against an old ACC foe in Virginia. Maryland was able to overcome a second consecutive 14-0 deficit, with the Big Ten crew praising defensive coordinator Brian Williams and the defensive staff for the quick adjustments to get through nonconference play. Maryland was able to do what fans hoped and expected all offseason—come out of nonconference play undefeated. It hasn’t always been pretty, but there have been plenty of good sights. We break down the good, bad and ugly from the Terps’ first three weeks of the 2023 season.

The Good:

Taulia Tagovailoa

Against Virginia, Tagovailoa felt confident and in control as soon as the first series wrapped up. The offensive line gave him a lot of help as he had plenty of time to set his feet and pick apart the Virginia defense. Tagovailoa finished with 342 yards completing 19-of-30 passes and also mixed in a 64-yard touchdown to Jeshaun Jones in the third quarter. The play was a beautiful double move route where Tagovailoa was on the run and chucked up a beautiful ball to hit Jones in stride. In the second quarter, Tagovailoa led an impressive drive to tie up the game. The Terrapins were backed up to their own endzone when Tagovailoa evaded the pocket and found Dyches on 3rd and 10 to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Tagovailoa threw a gorgeous cross body throw to Kaden Prather for 43 yards. Tagovailoa found his swagger and confidence that makes him very dangerous. He added more “drop in the bucket” throws in the 4th quarter to Corey Dyches and Tai Felton on a flea flicker. As he recorded his 13th career 300-yard game, Tagovailoa passed the eye test and played with a confidence that needs to be there entering Big Ten play.

Wide receiver Jeshaun Jones noted that the passing game still has work to do to reach its full potential, but still, Tagovailoa enters conference play leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency (154.7) and passing yards (889) along with third in touchdowns (5). Maryland’s passing offense also drew the third-highest grade among Big Ten teams per PFF (80.4)

Special Teams

Head coach Mike Locksley has been adamant about how important special teams is to the success of the Terrapins, especially as Big Ten play begins. In the past, special teams has been a sour subject for Terrapins fans as star players have gotten hurt and back-breaking plays have occurred in this aspect of the game.

Maryland opened the season with a number of options in the return game with Octavian Smith, Roman Hemby, Braeden Wisloski, Tai Felton and Ryan Manning in the mix. Smith, a second-year receiver, opened the season as Maryland’s primary kick returner before position coach James Thomas Jr. sparked a change heading into week three.

Against Virginia, when the Terrapins needed it most true freshman Braeden Wisloski took a kickoff return 98 yards to the house. After falling behind 14-0 early this was much needed to get the crowd and the Terrapins back into the game. It was such a pivotal play that helped ease the disaster of the first few minutes.

Not only did Wisloski’s touchdown mark the first kickoff return for a touchdown in nearly four years, but the true freshman now sits second in the Big Ten in total return yards, 15 yards behind Tyrone Tracy Jr. from Purdue.

Colton Spangler also had a great day punting as he pinned Virginia inside the 20 on 3 of his 4 punts. I was even encouraged by kicker Jack Howes as he had the leg on the 55-yard field goal but just pushed it right.

Jack Howes enters conference play 3-of-5 on the season, with misses from 42 and 55 yards so far this season, while being an asset on kickoffs with touchbacks on five of his six attempts so far. Colton Spangler, meanwhile, sits fourth in the Big Ten averaging 43.8 yards per punt.

Pass Blocking

I mentioned this before, but against Virginia, Tagovailoa had all day to throw. Many, including me, were skeptical of the Maryland offensive line, especially in pass protection. These question marks have loomed over the first two games as Tagovailoa was getting pressured by inferior teams. On Friday the offensive line held up. Granted it was against a weak Virginia pass rush, but it is important to get confidence and see signs of life. Gottlieb Ayedze made his season debut and mostly played right guard. I thought both he and Bullock had strong games in pass protection and DJ Glaze was great again as per usual. Taulia only got sacked one time and even then the offensive line held up for a decent bit but Tagovailoa tried to make magic happen. If the offensive line can give Tagovailoa time it’s going to help him make the throws downfield that he is capable of making. Tagovailoa can get easily frustrated if he is constantly running around.

In an effort to iron out the starting five, Maryland has gradually trimmed its rotation through nonconference play. With double-digit players seeing the field in week one, the offensive line through three weeks has largely remained the same with (L-R) DJ Glaze, Bullock, Aric Harris, Amelio Moran and Conor Fagan stepping in. Kyle Long has found himself in the rotation while Mike Purcell has rotated with Harris at center

The Uniforms and the Crowd

A major talking point in the re-emergence of Maryland football has been crowd support and the lack there of. Friday was a step in the right direction as 37,000 packed SECU Stadium including 14,000 students. Student sections have been getting increasingly better over Locksley’s tenure and this was one of the best that stayed most of the game.

The upper deck was still sparse but a Friday night against a bad opponent it is expected. I expect bigger crowds against the likes of Penn St. and Michigan if Maryland can prove they are for real throughout the rest of the year. The Black Script uniforms against Virginia…wow they were great. Maybe a little more yellow on the pants and helmet, however, still plenty good enough to draw buzz on social media.

The Bad

The Run Game

Against Virginia, I was expecting a big game on the ground for the Terrapins but it was quite the opposite on Friday night. Yes, the Terrapins punched in four rushing touchdowns on the night as Roman Hemby (2), Antwain Littleton, and Colby McDonald all found the endzone. While the redzone rushing was good, it mostly came in garbage time where Maryland did their damage in the run game. Roman Hemby had 23 yards on 9 carries for 2.6 yards per carry. Littleton had 28 yards on 9 carries for 3.1 yards per carry and again struggled at times in short-yardage situations. McDonald had the only explosive runs of the game as he took 10 carries for 75 yards including a 35-yard run on a beautiful pull block by Corey Bullock. The offensive line was not great in creating gaps all night. They improved a bit inside the five as Kyle Long and DJ Glaze had touchdowns created behind them. The run game is key to the Big Ten style of play and it must improve next week in East Lansing.

Hemby did it all against Charlotte, finishing with 150+ rushing yards and over 210 all-purpose yards to lead Maryland to a win. He sits seventh in the conference in rushing yards per game (81) with McDonald checking in at 13th (55.3).

The Ugly

The Starts

Maryland found themselves surprised in week two after just minutes into the game, it was Charlotte who took a commanding 14-0 lead in front of a stunned SECU Stadium. Maryland used 38 unanswered points to put out Charlotte’s fire, but heading into Virginia, the emphasis was to start fast.

That didn’t happen as another brutal start with some trick plays mixed had the Terrapins down 14-0 at home in the first quarter for the second straight week. Following an opening drive three and out for Maryland, Virginia brought out a flea flicker that was completed for 49 yards on a blown coverage. Two plays later Cavaliers running back Perris Jones waltzed 13 yards into the endzone to make it 7-0 Virginia. The ensuing drive had a missed 55-yard field goal attempt by Jack Howes that was caused by a Corey Bullock holding call. Virginia now with the ball back marched on a 63-yard drive capped off by an Anthony Colandrea 19-yard touchdown on a running back wheel route were again, a blown coverage by the Maryland secondary. The crowd was stunned as they found their team down 14-0 at home for the second straight week where the expectations were an easy win. The motto that head coach Mike Locksley has repeated this season is “start fast, finish strong.” Now the Terrapins accomplished the latter on Friday but again failed to achieve the first part of that quote. In conference play, especially on the road, the slow starts leave room for concern. Luckily through three weeks, Maryland was playing opponents where they could get away with these brutal starts.

The Secondary

The 4th quarter defensive effort was very impressive from the Terrapins. Tarheeb Still came up with two interceptions including a massive one in the endzone when their lead was only 7. Donnell Brown also posted an interception for the second week in a row but turnovers aside, the secondary was just not good at all on Friday night. Starting safet Beau Brade, was ruled out prior to the game and is questionable heading into Michigan, so Glen Miller got a lot more rub, but he was not necessarily the issue. It started with the Virginia flea flicker on the first drive where Ja’Quan Sheppard bit on the run and left the Virginia receiver wide open. Dante Trader Jr. also bit on the play, and it was just overall an undisciplined play from the secondary. On the second touchdown, it was more undisciplined defense from the secondary, this time from Tarheeb Still. Still read the play as a QB run to the opposite side and tried to be the hero by making a chase-down tackle. However, it was a play action, and his zone was left completely vacant which allowed a wide-open Virginia receiver to take it 19 yards to the house. Throughout the rest of the night, Still was targeted numerous times and was often beat. He turned it around in the fourth quarter but for most of the game was a punching bag. It raises concern as the Terrapin faithful was questioning Still as the second outside corner opposite of Sheppard.

Some still wanted him as the nickel corner where he has had success in the past, but his solid finish should keep fans pleased for now. I was super high on Ja’Quan Sheppard coming into this year. I thought he would bring a physicality to the corner position that would make him a fan favorite. However, so far, we have got a lot of blown coverages and a bunch of missed tackles. On a 3rd and 23, Virginia converted on a 7-yard hitch route that was then taken 16 more yards based on poor tackling by Sheppard. It was a very poor effort and there were more like it throughout the night. Many people, including myself, thought this secondary was underrated and had a chance to be special. Tonight, there were a lot of blown coverages early and some poor tackling efforts. Glen Miller did solid in his role and made some fantastic tackles. Perry Fisher had some mishaps and Lionel Whittaker took a bad penalty. The big guns of Still, Sheppard, and Trader were not particularly good tonight however and need to vastly improve, especially in allowing large chunk plays.

Heading into conference play, Still has allowed seven catches for 77 yards on 14 targets.

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