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Maryland football vs. Illinois preview

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The Terps are set to take on their first Big Ten opponent of the season.

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
UMTerps

With two nonconference games under its belt, Maryland football is headed to face its first Big Ten opponent of the season in Illinois.

The Terps have come away with two wins so far over West Virginia and Howard and in the process have showcased its depth of talent on both sides of the ball.

“Obviously, as a team we’re excited to be 2-0,” Maryland head coach Michael Locksley said ahead of the team’s matchup with the Fighting Illini. “It’s a Big Ten opener, national TV audience... should be a great crowd and we’re excited about the opportunity.”

Offensively, quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa has shone. Tagovailoa has completed 48 of his 63 attempted passes, a 76.20% completion percentage, ranking third in the nation. The quarterback has passed for a total of 606 yards, six touchdowns and has zero turnovers.

He’s been able to use wideout weapons Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett who have totaled 261 yards and 189 yards, respectively. Demus Jr. and Jarrett both have two touchdowns thus far.

The running game was also showcased as running back Tayon Fleet-Davis had a strong game against Howard as he now averaged 94.50 yards per game and has a touchdown.

The defense has also been electric allowing just three points in the last six quarters of play. Returning linebackers Nick Cross and Tarheeb Still have led the way while linebackers Branden Jennings and Ruben Hyppolite II, defensive backs Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett along with defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu have continued to make big defensive plays for Maryland football.

Now, the Terps get set to travel for the first time this season as it takes Illinois to kick off Big Ten play. The game is set to start at 9 p.m. EST and will air FS1.

Illinois Fighting Illini (1-2)

2020 season: (2-6)

Head coach Bret Bielema is in his first year at the helm of Illinois. Bielema has a breadth of coaching experience spanning back to 1994. The head coach started as a graduate assistant at Iowa before becoming a linebacker coach for the program through 2001. Bielema then moved to Kansas State as a co-defensive coordinator and Wisconsin to hold the same position. In 2006 up through 2012, Bielema served as the head coach in Wisconsin before moving to Arkansas where he was the head coach from 2006-12.

Bielema then took a break from the NCAA for three years where he worked with the New England Patriots and New York Giants before making the return to college football to accept the Illinois head coach position.

This season, the Illini beat their first opponent in Nebraska before dropping two in a row to UTSA and Virginia.

Players to know

Brandon Peters, senior quarterback, 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, No. 18 — Peters saw action in the first quarter of the first game of the season before leaving the game with an apparent shoulder injury. However, Peters is expected to start against the Terps and has many years under his belt as a quarterback. Ahead of this season, Peters was named to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm watch list which recognizes the top senior or upperclassman quarterback. In his few minutes against the Cornhuskers, Peters went 3-for-4 on passes for 35 yards and zero interceptions. With Peters returning from his injury and the Illini coming off a two-game losing streak, it will be interesting to see his leadership on full display and how he may help Illinois’ offense.

“Very good quarterback,” Hyppolite said of Peters ahead of the matchup. “He’s poised, he runs the offense very well for them. You know, we’re just excited to get out there and ready to, you know, play against them and be ready for the competition... We’re just looking forward to playing our brand of football.”

Isaiah Williams, redshirt freshman wide receiver, 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, No. 1 — Williams lead the team with 19 catches, double the second player on the team, and has a total of 183 receiving yards. He averages 9.63 yards a reception, has one touchdown on the season and averages 61 yards per game, the most on the Illini. Williams started his collegiate career as a quarterback before making the move to wide receiver ahead of this season and he is already making an impact. Against UTSA, he had a career-high eight receptions and 101 receiving yards.

Devon Witherspoon, sophomore defensive back, 6-foot, 180 pounds, No. 31 — The Pensacola, Florida native leads the team with 20 tackles, 18 of those solo. Witherspoon also leads the team with seven pass breakups and three tackles for loss yards. For reference, Maryland’s top player at breaking up passes through two games is senior defensive back Jakorian Bennett who has three. Witherspoon had a team-high four pass breakups against Nebraska earlier this season.

Strength

Punt yardage. Illinois punter Blake Hayes averaged 45.39 yards per punt. Although a team prefers to kick off rather than punt, if Maryland’s defense stops Illinois’ offense in its tracks, the Fighting Illini can pin the Terps deeper than any of their other opponents this season. Maryland’s opponents have averaged 34.80 yards per punt this season while the Terps average 38.86 yards. Hayes’ punting ranks No. 23 in the nation and fifth in the Big Ten.

Weakness

Converting on third and fourth down. The Fighting Illini have converted 20 of their 48 attempts on third, a 41.67% success rate. Also, on four fourth-down attempts, Illinois has converted just one. Maryland’s defense has success this season in stopping its opponents on third down. The Terps have held opponents to converting just 24% of their attempted third down plays.

Three things to watch

1. How will tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo continue to perform for the Terps? Ahead of the season, the tight end position was a big question mark for Maryland. After Okonkwo sat last season out due to medical reasons, the Terps really did not have anyone consistent in that spot. In fact, during the abbreviated 2020 season, just one tight end had a reception. Now, in the first two games of the season, Okonkwo has already had a huge impact on this Maryland offense scoring twice in the red zone. However, his reach extends beyond scoring. Okonkwo has also improved his blocking over the last few seasons helping to open up the running game for Terps.

“Touchdowns in both games, I’m doing everything that I’m trying to do and it’s all going the way I’ve envisioned it so far,” Okonkwo said. “I think I’ve done a good job, I can clean up some stuff, but I think I've done a good job in the blocking game... all the work I've put on doing it in the summer time and the spring time, it’s all coming to fruition now.”

It will be interesting to see how Okonkwo continues to be a key piece the this Maryland offense as the Terps get into Big Ten play.

2. Will Maryland’s defense continue its momentum? The Terps have allowed just three points in the last six quarters of play. Granted, Howard is not known for its prolific offense however, Maryland made adjustments following the first half against West Virginia and allowed just three points in the closing quarters. The Terps’ defense is hot right now with defensive backs Nick Cross and Tarheeb Still leading the way. Linebackers Branden Jennings, Demeioun Robinson and Ruben Hyppolite II have also been making an impact on the offense. It’s become apparent over the first two games that Maryland’s defense has depth as the Terps have three interceptions, two from Jennings and one from Cross as well as two forced fumbles, one from each Jennings and Cross once again. Still leads the team with 10 total tackles, Jennings is right behind with eight and Hyppolite, Banks, Okuayinonu and Cross each have six.

3. How will Maryland perform in its first Big Ten matchup of the season? Excluding the 2020 season, Maryland football has not won its third game of the season since 2016. That year, the Terps defeated UCF and eventually went on to compete in the Quick Lane Bowl against Boston College. However, these past few seasons when it seems Maryland may have some momentum, it falls in this third game. This season is different in the sense that their third game can be viewed as an early test. Although Illinois is not near the top of the Big Ten, it is the Terps’ first conference game as well as their first away game which is an added element. Additionally, Maryland had a shortened week with this game being a Friday evening game. That being said, the Terps can expect that the home crowd may be there and energized, looking to create an away environment many of these young players have not been in since last season there were no fans in attendance.

“It’s going to be a crazy crowd, I hope there’s a lot of people there,” Tagovailoa said of the Friday night matchup.