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Three takeaways from Maryland football’s tight 20-17 win over Illinois

The defense shined for the Terps on the road.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland football was back in action and captured its third consecutive win to start the 2021 season with a low-scoring 20-17 victory over Illinois on Friday evening.

After scoring a combined 92 points in their first two games against the likes of Howard and West Virginia, the Terps managed just three points when halftime came around. However, a resilient fourth quarter saw Maryland senior kicker Joseph Petrino play the hero as he knocked in a 32-yard field goal as time expired to give his team the win.

“We knew going into this game that it would be a tough game, we knew that we would get their best,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “We were prepared for a four quarter game and it became just that.”

It was a fairly sloppy win for the Terps, but they did just enough to escape with another victory to keep their undefeated streak alive.

Maryland is now 3-0 for the first time since 2016 and will look to improve to four straight wins when Kent State visits College Park on Sept. 25.

Let’s take a look at some of the takeaways from Maryland’s three-point road win over Illinois.

Maryland’s shutout streak on defense was snapped at five consecutive quarters.

Coming into the program’s third matchup of the season against Illinois, Maryland’s defense allowed just three points in its last six quarters. The Terps surrendered just three points to West Virginia in the fourth quarter of that game and then didn’t allow a single point to Howard over four quarters.

The Terps’ shutout run on the defensive end stretched all the way into the second quarter until Illinois scored a chip shot 25-yard field goal with one minute and 27 seconds remaining in the half.

Maryland’s defense all the way up until the final two minutes of the first half was astounding, to say the least. In the first quarter alone, Illinois totaled 103 yards but came away with no points to show for it because of a few key plays from the Terps. The Fighting Illini had an early chance to take a brief lead in the opening frame, but a 26-yard field goal attempt from Illinois kicker James McCourt was blocked by Maryland’s senior defensive lineman Ami Finau to keep the game scoreless.

Illinois also managed to go just 2-for-5 on third-down conversions in the opening quarter, and one of Maryland’s third-down stops included this sack from defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu.

“Well, defense goes out there to retaliate, to make plays and change the game, get it back, get the ball back to the office,” sophomore defensive back Tarheeb Still said. “So, everyone’s on the same page like that. Everyone’s just locked into what they got to do.”

The second quarter saw Illinois eventually come away with three points on the board to break the Terps’ shutout streak. However, Maryland’s defense held strong for the most part to close out the half. By halftime, the Fighting Illini’s quarterback Brandon Peters had 137 yards on 6-of-17 passing, which comes out to just a 35.3% passing completion percentage.

Maryland’s consistent pressure held Illinois to75 total yards in the second quarter. Okuayinonu and junior linebacker Durell Nchami led the way for the Terps in the first half, as Nchami sacked Peters twice in the second frame.

Junior defensive back Nick Cross also had a phenomenal two quarters to kick off the game. He collected five tackles, three of which were solo, and he exhibited his elite versatility with two pass breakups as well. Linebackers Branden Jennings and Ruben Hyppolite II were right behind Cross in the first half with five tackles and four tackles, respectively.

Even though Maryland's defensive shutout streak was eventually snapped late in the second quarter, it was yet another strong showing over the first 30 minutes of the game against Illinois and the defense was a big reason why Maryland stayed alive in the contest early on and eventually had a chance to win it.

“I think the defense did an outstanding job getting us the ball back in crucial moments, you know, they never stopped playing, just continued to go,” junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa said.

For the first time this season, the Terps shied away from the ground game for the most part

In the 30-24 season-opener win over West Virginia in College Park, Maryland made it clear that it was going to run the ball until it couldn’t run the ball anymore.

The Terps ended with 44 rush attempts that totaled out to 164 (3.7 yards per carry) back on Sept. 4 against the Mountaineers, and redshirt senior Tayon Fleet-Davis and sophomore Isaiah Jacobs combined for 32 of those carries. Maryland had just 36 pass attempts in that win.

Then looking at Howard, it was expectedly much more of the same from the Terps’ on the ground, especially with the game script leaning towards a heavy ground game as Maryland found itself up by a large margin. Fleet-Davis led the way with eight carries for 66 yards in the Terps’ 62-0 win and Maryland finished with 49 total rushing attempts compared to just 32 passes.

This time around in Maryland’s first road Big Ten game of the season, though, when it struggled offensively, it started to more heavily on the passing game for the first time this season.

Maryland managed just 39 yards on 12 carries in the first half, but then a more re-energized ground game found its footing in the third and fourth quarter. The third frame saw Maryland go back to the ground game, as one of the best plays from the Terps all night came from a Tagovailoa 35-yard scamper on an option play during Maryland’s first drive of the second half.

Maryland finished the quarter with eight carries for 68 yards, then added onto its total with seven more rushes in the final quarter.

Fleet-Davis once again paced the Terps’ running backs on the ground and was the only back to receive double-digit carries with 11. He averaged a strong 5.6 yards per carry and added in a two-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter. Tagovailoa and Jacobs carried the ball six times each, but it was clear that Maryland opted to go more pass-heavy as the game clock dwindled

The Terps finished with a total of 43 passes, which 16 more attempts than the team’s 27 carries on the night. The balance between the running and passing game is still something to keep an eye on moving forward, especially with tougher Big Ten matchups creeping around the corner as Maryland is now 25% done with its 12-game regular-season slate.

Despite Maryland’s lack of discipline, it miraculously found a way to win on the road late in the game

When the Terps trailed 17-10 in the fourth quarter, it seemed all was lost in their efforts to make a comeback. Maryland’s overall discipline was lacking throughout the entire game, but there was one specific play that seemed to doom it late in the contest.

Tagovailoa aired a ball out to wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. who broke free from his defender near the end zone. The lofted ball found Demus’ hands and for a moment it looked as though Maryland’s 41-yard deep shot tied the game at 17 apiece. However, Maryland’s Jacobs was flagged for an illegal chop-block, which canceled out the crucial touchdown for the time being.

Jacobs’ flag was just one example of how Maryland was tagged for eight penalties for a grand total of 62 yards. The eight penalties were the most the Terps have committed in a single game this season.

It’s important to remember that Maryland defensive back Lavonte Gater was given a targeting penalty, while defensive back Jordan Mosley was very close to being hit with a targeting call as well, but he remained in the game upon further review.

Despite the lack of discipline, Maryland gave its fans a glimmer of hope with a fourth-quarter touchdown from Fleet-Davis to tie the game at 17, then a defensive stop with under two minutes remaining to get the ball back in a very favorable area of the field.

It took just three plays over the course of 47 seconds for the Terps to do enough damage down the field to get within striking distance for Petrino, and soon after the senior knocked in a 32-yarder to which you could almost hear the sigh of relief from Maryland’s sideline.

“I was trying to stay as calm as I can, trying to make it seem like it’s just a regular kick like the same as every other kick,” Petrino said about the field goal as time expired. “Obviously it’s going to be a bit more nerve-racking but just trying to stay as calm as possible... that was actually my first game-winner.”

It was a gritty win for the Terps, and it was easily one they could have lost due to the penalties that were committed. Now, even though it didn’t play its most efficient style of football, Maryland is looking at a perfect 3-0 start as it welcomes Kent State at home next on the schedule.

“I was really proud of the way they fought and overcame a ton of mistakes on our part,” Locksley said. “But, you know, the ball didn’t seem to bounce our way today, but when we needed to make plays on offense and on defense and special teams, all three phases made the plays and to me that that’s what I’m most proud of.”