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Maryland football vs. Illinois preview

The Terps and Illini square off for the first time ever.

maryland football-iowa-game-preview-stats-game-time Art Pittman-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland and Illinois have never played each other in football. That will change Saturday as the Illini visit College Park at 3:30 p.m. ET on the Big Ten Network.

Of course, this game seems rather inconsequential compared to the off-field drama surrounding it. The months-long investigation into the program’s culture is complete, and the full report outlines a problematic environment within the team itself and the athletic department as a whole. As of this writing, no decisions regarding head coach DJ Durkin or other university officials have been made.

While that’s all going on, interim head coach Matt Canada will try to lead his Terps to another bounceback win. Maryland was shut out by Iowa last weekend, but enters this contest as 17.5-point favorites over an Illinois team that ranks 105th in S&P+ and has been a bottom-tier Power 5 program for most of this decade.

Illinois Fighting Illini (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten)

2017 record: 2-10, 0-9

Head coach Lovie Smith is in his third season at Illinois, having been hired the same offseason as DJ Durkin at Maryland. The Illini are just 8-23 in his tenure, though, so fans’ patience is starting to wither. Smith coached the Chicago Bears from 2004-12, reaching the Super Bowl in 2006, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2014-15 before coming to Champaign.

Players to know

Reggie Corbin, junior, RB, 5’10/200, No. 2
Corbin is Illinois’ leading rusher, averaging 7.9 yards per carry and totaling 584 yards with six touchdowns in the team’s first seven games. His best performance came against Rutgers, when he rushed for 137 yards and a score. It’s been a junior-year renaissance for Corbin, who ran for 523 yards as a freshman but was used sparingly last season and recorded just 78. Corbin also has nine catches for 92 yards this year, making him Illinois’ all-purpose yardage leader.

AJ Bush, senior, QB, 6’4/225, No. 1
M.J. Rivers II, freshman, QB, 6’4/215, No. 8
These two have formed some sort of confusing quarterback platoon this year—Bush has started five games, while Rivers has started two and appeared in two more (both played last week against Wisconsin). Bush is a grad transfer from Virginia Tech, where he saw limited time in 2017. Rivers is a true freshman who was the No. 27 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2018, but he’s a little more of a pocket passer than Bush. These two have almost identical totals at this point in the season, and they’ve combined to throw for five touchdowns and six interceptions.

Bobby Roundtree, sophomore, DE, 6’5/255, No. 97
Rountree has been all over the place this year. He’s got a team-high four sacks (no other Illini have more than 1.5) and six tackles for loss, but has also batted down five passes and forced a fumble. His 38 total tackles are good for third on the team. Roundtree posted 50 tackles and four sacks last season, but with five games left this fall, he’s well on his way to obliterating those totals.


Rushing offense. Corbin leads the way, but sophomore Mike Epstein is dangerous as well. He’s got 411 yards this season and averages 6.9 per carry. Third-stringer Ra’Von Bonner is squarely in the mix as well, and Bush is a dangerous runner at quarterback. Illinois ranks 14th in the country in offensive rushing S&P+, and the offensive line is certainly doing its part (the Illini are 11th in opportunity rate on the ground).


Rushing defense. Opponents are averaging 222 rushing yards per contest against the Illini. They rank 116th in this category and 98th in defensive rushing S&P+. Illinois isn’t particularly prone to allowing big runs (64th in explosiveness), it definitely struggles to wrap up opposing running backs (121st in stuff rate, 126th in efficiency). If Maryland’s trio of Ty Johnson, Anthony McFarland and Tayon Fleet-Davis can get past the line of scrimmage consistently, they’re all dangerous.

Three things to watch

1. Does Maryland’s offense get back on track? The Terps have at least 375 yards of offense in their four wins, but haven’t surpassed 220 in any of their three losses. Their total of 115 last weekend was by far a season low, and while a concerning disparity in plays run—39 to Iowa’s 76—plays a part in keeping that total down, Maryland is quite simply at fault for it. Illinois’ defense presents the opportunity for a bounceback, and the Terps will need to take advantage.

2. Can the Terps control possession? This is obviously somewhat related to the question above, as an effective offense that gets first downs stays on the field longer. But the defense has to get off the field when it has the chance. Maryland’s defense did all it could against Iowa, forcing the Hawkeyes to field goals when they had chances at touchdowns, but Iowa started the game 7-of-11 on third down, with two of those failures resulting in fourth-down conversions. The Hawkeyes did go just 2-of-7 after that, though, so there’s reason for some optimism going forward.

3. What does Tre Watson have in store against his former team? The linebacker played three years for Illinois, recording 102 total tackles in 2016 and 65 in nine games last year. He left for Maryland as a grad transfer in the offseason and is playing at an all-conference level. Watson leads Maryland with 69 total tackles, and he and safety Darnell Savage are tied for the league lead with four interceptions. Watson will be extra amped up Saturday, but Matt Canada is confident he’ll handle those emotions well.


Vegas: Maryland -17.5 (O/U 53)

S&P+: Maryland 35, Illinois 22

Me: Maryland 27, Illinois 13