Maryland football’s chances to pick up its third win of the season looked bleak late in the fourth quarter, needing to travel over 80 yards trailing by seven as time ticked down in the fourth.
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa gathered himself and the offense, putting behind him the struggles that had led to his offense scoring just 10 points through more than 55 minutes of football.
Tagovailoa orchestrated a clinical drive, shredding apart the Illinois defense by finding his marquee weapons. In desperate need of a touchdown to have a chance to send the game to overtime, Tagovailoa delivered a pass to running back Tayon Fleet-Davis who ran it in for ten yards and the score, tying the game at 17 with two minutes and 13 seconds to go.
From there, Maryland came away with a massive stop, forcing Illinois to lose several yards. The Fighting Illini punted the ball away, which didn't travel very far before heading out of bounds.
Tagovailoa picked up some yards with under a minute to go to set his kicker up for the game-winning kick. Joseph Petrino then stepped up and nailed the 32-yard field goal try as time expired, granting Maryland its first 3-0 start since 2016.
“We have so much faith and trust in, Joe. He makes kicks like that every day,” Tagovailoa said. “This was his moment to shine.”
Scoring was at a premium on Friday night as Maryland squeaked by Illinois, 20-17, in its first road game of the season and first test against a Big Ten opponent.
Illinois’ offensive struggles in the first quarter continued against what has become a suffocating Maryland defense. For the fourth game in a row, Illinois failed to put up any points in the first 15 minutes of the game.
Illinois starting quarterback Brandon Peters made his return to the lineup after missing the previous two games due to injury.
For the first time this season, Maryland’s offense failed to put points in its opening drive of the game. Illinois’ defense, which has struggled in recent weeks, looked fast and active right out of the gate, limiting Tagovailoa early on. Maryland failed to convert a first down on its opening drive and was forced to punt.
Tagovailoa tried to find his number one target Dontay Demus Jr. frequently in the first quarter. Demus’ three catches weren't enough for Maryland to move the chains and march down the field.
Late in the first quarter, the Fighting Illini were looking to take the lead and be the first team to get on the scoreboard. Illinois ran nine plays for 77 yards to set them up for a 26-yard field goal.
However, the kick was blocked by defensive lineman Ami Finau, leaving the score at zero a piece at the end of the first. It was the first time Maryland failed to put up points in the opening quarter this season.
Maryland’s offense looked like it might start clicking in the second quarter. In the very first play of the frame, Tagovailoa found Rakim Jarrett on the right sideline for a 37-yard completion.
Despite the long gain, Maryland couldn't find the end zone on the drive with Illinois’ defense holding Maryland to a field goal. Petrino nailed it from 32 yards out for the first points of the game and to give Maryland a 3-0 lead.
As Maryland was trying to halt another Illinois drive, it found itself looking for a stop in a third-and-nine situation. The Terps dialed up a blitz and Sam Okuayinonu broke through to take down Peters, forcing Illinois to punt in its own territory.
“Well, defense goes out there to retaliate, to make plays and change the game, get it back, get the ball back to the office,” defensive back Tarheeb Still said. “So, everyone’s on the same page like that. Everyone’s just locked into what they got to do.”
On the next drive, Maryland strung together some completions and solid runs to get the team in field goal range. But once again, the Terps could not get the yardage necessary when it mattered most.
They were forced to settle for a 32-yard field goal try from Petrino. Except this one was off the mark, leaving the Terps empty-handed and clinging on to a three-point lead.
“Being a kicker, I mean you can miss one but you just have to come back,” Petrino said. “That’s one thing that I’ve been trying to work on a lot because you’re not always going to make them, you just have to respond.”
Illinois attempted to put its first complete drive of the game together as the clock was winding down in the second quarter. A couple of penalties on the Terps defense allowed the Fighting Illini to gain a few extra yards on the drive.
Despite allowing Illinois to get into scoring position, the Terps red zone defense held strong, coming up with a huge third-down stop to force Illinois to kick a field goal. The 25-yard attempt went through the upright, tying the score at three.
At halftime, the score remained knotted at three with Maryland’s offense in shambles after two phenomenal performances against West Virginia and Howard the first two weeks of the season.
It took thirty minutes of football for Maryland to settle into its first road game of the season, but the offense settled in nicely to open the third quarter. On the opening drive of the second half, Maryland went five plays for 75 yards that ended with Fleet-Davis punching it in for the first touchdown of the game to give Maryland a 10-7 lead.
With under 10 minutes to go in the third quarter, Maryland was driving down the field and looked poised to add another score to extend the lead. It didn't turn out that way as Fleet-Davis caught a pass and turned toward the end zone, only for the ball to be punched out by an Illinois defender at the 7-yard line. It was Maryland’s first turnover of the season.
Illinois capitalized on Maryland’s misfortunes, driving all the way down the field to set itself up for a scoring opportunity. Illinois’ running back Josh McCray took a carry 38 yards to the house, breaking free from Maryland’s secondary trying to latch on. With just over six minutes to go in the third, the game was tied at 10.
As was the theme all game, Maryland’s defense bailed out the offense. On the ensuing drive, Nick Cross intercepted an overthrown ball from Illinois’ Peters. The pick was Cross’ second of the season.
However, Maryland’s offense couldn't make anything of the turnover, punting the ball back over to Illinois after a three-and-out drive.
Illinois was marching to start the fourth quarter with the game still tied at 10. It didn't take long into the fourth for Illinois to get on the board. Illinois running back Reggie Love III fumbled on a rush thanks to Maryland defensive back Jordan Mosley popping the ball loose. Instead of a Terp scooping the ball up, Illinois’ Casey Washington picked the ball up and ran it into the end zone to give Illinois its first lead of the game, 17-10.
Once again, Maryland was looking for points, a sacred occurrence on Friday night, with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter. Tagovailoa connected with Demus Jr. for a 41-yard touchdown that looked like the spark Maryland was looking for all game.
However, the touchdown was called back as a chop-block penalty was called on Maryland. Maryland was forced to punt the ball away trailing 17-10.
The defense, as dominant as ever, made sure Illinois did not put up any more points on the evening.
Tagovailoa worked his fourth-quarter magic to lead the game-tying drive and set up Petrino to hit the game-winner minutes later.
“We knew going into this game that it would be a tough game, we knew that we would get their best,” head coach Mike Locksley said. “We were prepared for a four quarter game and it became just that.”
Tagovailoa’s decision-making was terrific for the third straight game, not throwing an interception while completing 32-of-43 passes for 350 yards and one touchdown.
Three things to know
1. It was the defense that carried the Terps, particularly in the first half. Maryland’s offense gets plenty of attention as the better of the two sides of the ball, deservedly so given its terrific performances to open the season. However, that wasn't the case against Illinois as the Terps put up just three first-half points against an Illinois defense that has had difficulty getting stops in recent weeks.
“For us the execution on offense was like I said, not necessarily in sync, you know, we drove down a couple of times, we kicked field goals,” Locksley. “And for us, when you get in the red area you got to score touchdowns, especially on the road.”
Luckily for Maryland, the defense was terrific, limiting Illinois to three first-half points and 177 yards of total offense. Maryland went eight straight quarters, dating back to the West Virginia win, without allowing a touchdown before it surrendered one in the third quarter.
2. Maryland’s running backs struggled to take care of the ball. Fleet-Davis has emerged as the lead back for Maryland early in the season, but the room is by no means established. Tonight, both Fleet-Davis and Boone fumbled the ball, hindering Maryland drives and giving momentum to the opponent in the second half. In five games last season, Maryland had two total fumbles. In the span of just a few minutes in the third quarter against Illinois, Maryland tied that season total from last season.
3. Discipline continued to be an issue against Illinois. Locksley has preached discipline to his team all offseason and has expressed displeasure with his team's avoidable penalties after the first two weeks of the season. Despite the extra attention on the issue from Maryland’s staff, discipline continued to be a problem against Illinois.
Maryland had four first-half penalties, including a targeting call that got Lavonte Gater ejected in the first quarter. The Terps finished the game with eight penalties. The most costly one came in the fourth quarter when Tagovailoa connected with Demus Jr. for a 41-yard touchdown. However, it was called back due to a chop-block penalty called on the Terps near the line of scrimmage.