Maryland provides stiffer test for new-look 49ers

The 49ers lost 59-21 to the Terrapins last season

Charlotte will need to slow Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa — who had three touchdown passes and another rushing in the Terps’ season-opening win over Towson —if it wants to pull off an upset Saturday in College Park. (Steve Ruark / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Coming off his team’s season-opening 24-3 home win over South Carolina State, Charlotte first-year coach Biff Poggi spoke with a grounded optimism about how his players looked in their first action of the 2023 season.

“The grittiness and the toughness of the defense and the running game is who we are,” Poggi said in his first postgame press conference. “We are a blue-collar, gritty football team. We’re not these guys that are going to win a game 55-54, and we’ve talked about that in here before. If we win a game by three touchdowns, that’s a very physically dominant kind of win for a team like us.”

The combination of a powerful rushing attack that totaled 220 yards and a resilient defense that allowed just three points resulted in a three-touchdown victory in front of a sellout crowd of 15,622 people at Jerry Richardson Stadium on Saturday. The opener fit the blueprint of how Poggi envisioned his new-look Niners (1-0) would come together.

Poggi’s optimism was countered by his admission that a Week 2 road trip to Maryland (1-0) will be a far greater test than what the 49ers experienced against the FCS Bulldogs.

“South Carolina State is a good football team, but Maryland’s a different animal,” he said.

“They’re a Big Ten East team, they’re very well-coached and they’ve got a lot of good players,” Poggi added. “They have a great quarterback who can run around and make plays. They’ve got very good skilled players — running backs, receivers, tight ends — and they are typically really good in the secondary. They also have a great linebacker in Jaishawn Barham.”

The Terrapins opened their season with a 38-6 home win over Towson in which quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa totaled four first-half touchdowns. Coming off back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in two decades, Maryland played like a team ready to surprise the Big Ten.

Although many players on the Niners’ roster have little connection to last season’s team, those who were around for Charlotte’s 59-21 home loss to Maryland in Jerry Richardson Stadium last September know they will need to up their game to beat the Terps.

“Nobody in this building thinks that what we did tonight is near good enough to win in Maryland,” Poggi said. “After today, pundits will be firmly in the camp they’ve been in that we will probably get smoked next week. But you know, that’s why we play the games, right?”

As the Niners head up to College Park, freshman running back Durell Robinson will look to build on an impressive performance in his first collegiate game. Robinson got the 49ers’ sluggish offense on track in the second quarter when he had eight rushes for 71 yards and a touchdown.

Starting quarterback Jalon Jones also settled in as Robinson’s running helped stabilize the offense, even adding another dimension to Charlotte’s ground game with 49 rushing yards. Terron Kellman (48 yards) and Shadrick Byrd (42 yards) also contributed to the rushing attack.

“We have a lot of backs, and they all are good at different things,” Poggi said. “And then Durell is a guy that can do it all. That was his first college game. I mean, I’m pretty sure that those runs in the future are going to the house. This is a good group. Whenever you rush for 200 yards, you’ve had a good day rushing the football, and that’s kind of what we are.”

While Charlotte’s ability to run the ball will be needed to pull off an upset over Maryland, the Niners’ defense will first need to contain Tagovailoa and the Terrapins’ offense.

Led by senior safety Wayne Jones and Michigan transfer Eyabi Okie-Anoma, the Niners had four three-and-outs, two turnovers on downs, seven tackles for losses, three sacks and an interception in Week 1. SC State was limited to only 168 yards of total offense, and the Niners didn’t allow a touchdown for the first time in six years.

“We’ve been talking for a long time, telling [athletic director] Mike Hill, ‘We’re pretty elite on defense,’ and we played like it today,” Poggi said. “I am very pleased with how we played on defense, and I would expect us to only get better as the season goes on.”