STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Seeking its first victory of the season, Penn State gets to compete against the “little brother” of the Tagovailoa family of quarterbacks Saturday when Maryland visits Beaver Stadium.
Certainly, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin was impressed with the performance of sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa last week against Minnesota when he accounted for five touchdowns — three passing, two running — and brought the Terrapins (1-1) back from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit in a 45-44 overtime victory.
Franklin also is a fan of the entire family having watched Tua Tagovailoa, who left for the NFL after his junior season at Alabama and now is a rookie with the Miami Dolphins. He feels that Taulia has embraced his role.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the family and how they’ve gone about their whole process,” Franklin said this week. "I think it’s good for college football. But we’ve got an opportunity to play the little brother and he did a bunch of great things [last week].
“In some ways, although I think he’s done a great job of embracing it, I also think it’s tough. It’s tough to be the little brother of a big brother that’s had such a prolific college and start of an NFL career. We had a similar situation at Vanderbilt when I was the head coach there with Jordan Rodgers. So it can be tough, it can be challenging. But I think he’s done a good job of embracing it.”
Jordan Rodgers, a quarterback whom Franklin coached in his previous stop at Vanderbilt, is the younger brother of Green Bay Packers All-Pro Aaron Rodgers.
Taulia Tagovailoa transferred from Alabama in the offseason and moved to Maryland to join head coach Mike Locksley, his former offensive coordinator with the Crimson Tide. He received a waiver from the NCAA to play right away but in his debut at Northwestern, he passed for just 94 yards and threw three interceptions.
Tagovailoa performed a complete 180 the following week at home, lighting up the scoreboard against Minnesota. He completed 26-of-35 passes for 394 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 59 yards and two TDs.
“You watch that Minnesota game, it’s hard not to be impressed,” Franklin said. “You look at the completion percentage, you look at the decision-making, you look at his ability to make plays with his feet as well as extend plays in the pocket. It was impressive for them to start out strong and then rally at the end to send it to overtime, and then make the plays they were able to make.”
Lions senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said the key to defending Tagovailoa is making sure everyone on defense does his job.
“He makes plays with his legs,” Castro-Fields said. “He does a good job of extending plays. He has a good arm, can make throws and things like that. I think the main thing we’ve got to do is just do our job. Don’t try to be Superman. Whatever your role for that defense, what that call says for you to do, just do that. Plays will come.”
The Nittany Lions have outscored Maryland, 163-6, the last three years, facing three different quarterbacks during that time. Following Tagovailoa’s performance of last week, they don’t figure to have quite as easy a time on Saturday.
“We’ve got a hot quarterback coming in here,” Franklin said, “and whenever you’ve got a hot quarterback in college football or the NFL, you’ve got a chance. So it’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”
This is a different Maryland team from the one that the Nittany Lions has walloped the last three years. Tagovailoa has shown that he can carry the load, equally as dangerous with his arm and his legs. A corps of talented receivers led by 6-foot-3, 217-pound Dontay Demus, plus fifth-year senior Jake Funk, who rushed for 221 yards last week, will pose a challenge to a defense that gave up 526 total yards to Ohio State.
The Terrapins' defense, however, has not looked good. The unit has allowed 87 points and 988 total yards in its two games to date and opponents have scored on all 11 trips into the red zone, including eight touchdowns. Penn State should be able to get a ground game going against one of the nation’s worst rush defenses, with sophomore Noah Cain as the lead back. They also need to lean more on their two freshmen, Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes, and not be so reliant on the legs of Sean Clifford, who already has 35 carries in two games.
After two games of inconsistent play, the Nittany Lions need four quarters of effective football in all three phases. They also must keep their foot on the gas, knowing that Maryland, after being scored 31-0 in the middle two quarters against Minnesota, came back from 17 down in the fourth and won the game in overtime.
Prediction: Penn State 48, Maryland 31