Taulia Tagovailoa’s Maryland career has entered its final act.
The Terps’ quarterback has, at most, two games left with the program, his eligibility exhausted after four prolific seasons.
He leaves the program as its leader in every meaningful passing statistic but without the breakthrough win he and coach Michael Locksley have longed for. Tagovailoa had a chance to help the Terps earn it in his last home game, a 31-24 loss to No. 2 Michigan. But much like his off-target pass to Tai Felton that earned a crushing intentional grounding call, they fell short.
Tagovailoa’s Maryland legacy remains murky. The passage of time could reduce him to merely a name atop record books without a defining moment, cursed by his own limitations but also those imposed on him by the cruel reality of modern Maryland football.
“It’s a blessing having my name in the record books. ... I just really wish I could give Coach [Locksley] the victory that he deserves,” Tagovailoa said.
A win over the Wolverines would’ve solidified a place for him in Maryland lore that right now is more fleeting than his spot on the team’s all-time leaderboards.
Tagovailoa has entered the upper echelon of Terps quarterbacks, joining names like Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Scott McBrien and Shaun Hill. But each of them has anchored themselves in the program’s history with indelible victories.
Among them: Esiason’s last home game in 1983, a two-point win over then-No. 3 UNC, rescuing the Terps from a seven-point halftime deficit. That year’s team won the first of three straight ACC conference championships.
Reich upstaged him a year later by throwing for six scores in a 31-point comeback against then-No. 6 Miami.
Hill capped his last two regular-season games with victories that secured a share of, and then won outright the Terps’ only conference championship since the Reagan administration.
McBrien felled a host of ACC foes, including No. 14 NC State in 2002, orchestrating a drive that ended with Nick Novak’s go-ahead field goal.
When Tagovailoa steps to the arbitrator, what is his rebuttal?
A win over an unranked Penn State in a pandemic-affected 2020? His lone defeat over a ranked opponent in last year’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl — over a No. 25 NC State squad without its starting quarterback? Or could it be last season’s strong performance in a 13-point loss to then-No. 2 Ohio State?
Saturday’s loss against Michigan won’t be a worthy reply.
Tagovailoa showcased the brilliance that helped him set his records, completing multiple pinpoint passes downfield on a second-quarter touchdown drive.
But he also lost a fumble that was recovered for a Wolverines touchdown, missed a wide-open Felton on what could’ve been a 76-yard touchdown, and threw an interception two plays later.
He could’ve overshadowed those mistakes. The football gods gave Tagovailoa not one, not two, but three chances to win the game. They made it tough — he would’ve had to captain his team on 80-, 90- or 99-yard touchdown drives — but the Terps never even got close.
They didn’t even gain positive yardage. The first possession ended with a punt, the second with an interception, and the third with the grounding and subsequent safety.
Three chances at immortality, squandered.
“It’s tough. You put in a lot of hard work,” Tagovailoa said. “We had opportunities. We had opportunities to capitalize ... and we didn’t. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Of course, in a sport where 10 teammates share the field with him on offense, Saturday’s loss and multiple others can’t be pinned solely on the quarterback. Tagovailoa played for much worse Maryland teams than the hallowed names he’s measured against, requiring him to navigate larger talent gaps between his team and their opponent.
That’s why Tagovailoa’s legacy requires a different frame. He chose to transfer to a three-win Terps squad just two years removed from Jordan McNair’s death during a team workout.
He provided a brief interlude from the Kasim Hills and Max Bortenschlagers and Tyrrell Pigromes that staged a feeble imitation of a passing “attack”.
Teams led by those quarterbacks don’t get to talk about taking a next step like the Terps did before the 2023 season. They were fighting to keep the water below their necks.
Locksley’s potential to take that leap and make Maryland any kind of contender hinged on the early stability and competency Tagovailoa provided. The quarterback fixed a longstanding crack in Maryland’s hull, allowing the coach time to build up the other parts of the ship and eventually speak to greater ambitions.
“The guy just led us to three straight bowl games and could end up being the all-time leading passer in the history of this conference,” Locksley said. “So I think what he’s done here is pretty significant to me.”
The coach and his team will move forward, trying to reach the summit amid the perpetual churn of college sports. Tagovailoa won’t be with them, having departed without the one shining moment to bask in. Terps fans won’t get that singular snapshot from his career to look back on.
Despite all that, they should remember him: As the one who gave them any reason to dream.