Maryland football grabbed a win by the skin of its teeth when it traveled to take on Illinois this past Friday night.
With the help of senior kicker Joseph Petrino’s leg from 32-yards out as time expired, the Terps captured a gritty 20-17 win over the Fighting Illini to remain undefeated in 2021.
It wasn’t the prettiest game for a Maryland team that trended upwards through two victories to start the season, but the program did just enough to collect its first Big Ten win of the year to keep its winning streak alive.
Maryland will now move on to preparing for a game against Kent State, which it will face on Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. But before examining next week’s opponent, let’s take a look at some positional grades from the Terps’ third consecutive win of the season.
Maryland starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa built on his already stellar season with another solid performance against Illinois. Despite somewhat struggling to find much room in the first half with just 142 yards and no touchdowns on 14-of-20 passing, the junior bounced back in the second half to help Maryland collect the win. His flip of the switch in the final quarter was a big reason as to why the Terps avoided an upset. In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, Tagovailoa went 9-for-12 for 121 yards and a touchdown, including a last-minute drive to help set up Petrino for the win as time expired.
Tagovailoa finished the day connecting on 32-of-43 passes for 350 yards to go along with the one touchdown pass. He now has 956 passing yards, seven touchdowns and zero turnovers across three games. That’s elite-level production from a guy that threw seven interceptions in just four games a season ago.
Redshirt senior running back Tayon Fleet-Davis continued to exhibit his versatility coming out of the backfield against Illinois. The lead back tallied 106 total scrimmage yards, two touchdowns and averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 11 carries. Fleet-Davis also had the second-most catches for Maryland on the night with six.
Fleet-Davis had a costly turnover in the red zone early in the third quarter when Maryland held a 10-3 lead, but the starting back made up for it later on with a dazzling touchdown run with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to tie the game. He made a shifty spin-move around one defender, then broke another tackle and plunged into the end zone to bring the score to 17-17, and then Maryland eventually went on to win the game.
Outside of Fleet-Davis’ two-touchdown day, Peny Boone and Isaiah Jacobs combined for 12 carries and 49 yards.
Boone also had a fumble of his on the drive following Fleet-Davis’ however, Maryland immediately got the ball back as defensive back Nick Cross intercepted it as Illinois could not capitalize on the turnover.
Maryland went more pass-heavy in the second half, but even with Fleet-Davis’ red zone fumble and Boone’s fumble on the following drive, the running back corps did just enough to garner a solid grade.
For the first time all season, it wasn’t just the Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett show when looking at Maryland’s passing game. Eight different players had at least one catch as Tagovailoa made an effort to spread the ball around to a bunch of receivers. The usually-dominant duo of Demus and Jarrett that made a significant amount of noise in the Terps’ first two victories did put up solid numbers, though, combining for 147 yards off 12 catches.
Jeshaun Jones and Darryl Jones both came alive, especially late in the game. The former had a season-high five catches for 70 yards, while the latter also contributed with five receptions for 66 yards.
The one thing that was missing from the wide receivers was the deep-ball threat. Jarrett did have a reception that went for 37-yards and Demus had a 41-yard touchdown catch nullified due to a penalty, but the wideouts simply weren’t as dominant as they were in the first two weeks.
Just when you thought Maryland’s tight ends were becoming a more significant asset to the offense, the tight group came back down to earth against Illinois.
Senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo was a revelation for the Terps in the program’s wins over West Virginia and Howard but didn’t find any room against the Fighting Illini. After tallying four catches in two touchdowns in the first two games, Okonkwo was blanked in the receiving game against Illinois.
The only tight end to make a catch for Maryland was sophomore Corey Dyches, who totaled two catches on two targets for 18 yards. With a massive target share going to the team’s wideouts, the sparse production from the tight ends on Friday wasn’t too surprising.
Just like some of the other positional groups against what was projected to be a weaker Illinois team, Maryland’s big men up front didn’t have the same dominant performance they had in the program’s first two wins.
The Terps’ offensive line conceded three sacks, and without the poise and mobility of Tagovailoa in the pocket, that total could’ve ballooned to something even worse. The Illinois defense also had seven tackles for a loss.
The running game wasn’t heavily used either (27 attempts compared to 43 passing), but Maryland’s offensive line helped the ground game reach nearly five yards per rush. It was a fairly average day for the Terps’ offensive line after they excelled in the wins over West Virginia and Howard.
Maryland’s defensive line may have had its best performance to date. Illinois’ rushing attack stalled for the majority of the game, and the defensive line was able to break through on multiple occasions. The Fighting Illini finished the contest with just 3.3 yards per carry as a team on 45 total attempts.
Graduate student Sam Okuayinonu offered another strong game on the defensive end, and he added another two sacks to his season total. Through three games, Okuayinonu has managed a sack in every game, with four being his combined sack total. Freshman Darrell Jackson also got a taste of the action, and he made the most of it, getting six tackles.
Maryland’s defense held its ground against Illinois all game long, and the defensive line was just another piece to the puzzle for success.
Freshman Branden Jennings is quickly becoming an impactful player on Maryland’s defense and he took another step in a positive direction against Illinois. Jennings tied for second on the team with six total tackles in the game, just one tackle behind the next best player. He's clearly adjusting to the collegiate level very well and Jennings now has the most tackles on the defense through three games with 14.
Sophomore Ruben Hyppolite II, redshirt sophomore Deshawn Holt and freshman Demeioun Robinson all got in the mix, combining for 12 tackles. However, it was junior Durell Nchami who really stood out on Friday. Nchami didn't play against West Virginia and had three tackles in the win over Howard, but came alive in Maryland’s third contest. He sacked Peters twice and finished with three solo tackles when all was said and done.
The linebackers once again produced another solid performance, and this time it was very much collective effort from all personnel.
If you didn’t know by now, then here’s something that was made very clear in Maryland’s low-scoring win: Nick Cross is without a doubt the best player on this program’s defense.
The junior defensive back had a team-high seven tackles, with four of them being solo. Cross also stood out with three pass breakups and one interception against Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters, who finished with just 10 completions on 26 pass attempts for 185 yards.
Senior Jordan Mosley chipped in with six tackles of his own along with a forced fumble and sophomore Tarheeb Still had another pass breakup added to his resume as well. The secondary has grown into a formidable force for Maryland, and without its collectively efficient performance, the Terps could’ve easily been looking at a 2-1 record heading into Kent State.
The special teams unit is what ultimately helped Maryland capture the three-point win over the Fighting Illini. Believe it or not, Petrino had all three of his field goal attempts from exactly 32-yards away and he finished going 2-for-3 on the night with the final field goal attempt being the game-decider. Petrino is now 6-for-9 on field goal attempts for the season, with an 80% field goal success rate within 40-yards.
Maryland also rolled out its two-headed monster at punter, with junior Anthony Pecorella receiving four punts compared to junior Colton Spangler’s two tries. Pecorella had two of his punts reach over 50 yards with a season-long of 56, and he also managed to punt it twice within the Illinois’ 20-yard line. Overall, it was an encouraging day on special teams for the Terps in a game where a field goal try with time expiring was the difference-maker.