Whether it was because of the short week or the defenses simply having the upper hand, it took until the final three minutes of the fourth quarter Friday night for Maryland to find its offensive groove against Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
After the defense forced Illinois to punt with 55 seconds left, junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa launched a 26-yard pass to sophomore receiver Rakim Jarrett, which set up a 32-yard field goal by senior kicker Joseph Petrino in the final seconds to escape Champaign, Illinois, with a 20-17 victory.
Maryland is 3-0 for the first time since 2016.
“This year, we had two questions that had to get answered: Would we be a team that played with great discipline this year? Will we be a team that would be able to handle adversity?” Maryland third-year coach Mike Locksley said. “Today we got the second question answered.”
For a moment, it appeared as if Maryland (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) was going to lose in the most improbable fashion. During the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, Illinois running back Reggie Love III ran up the middle, bounced to the outside and raced down the sideline before the ball was punched loose by Terps defensive back Jordan Mosley at the Maryland 40-yard-line. Wide receiver Casey Washington picked up the fumble and ran into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown, giving Illinois a 17-10 lead with 14:13 to play.
Locksley has said several times that he doesn’t want the Terps to beat themselves with penalties. That message has not yet resonated, as the Terps committed eight penalties for 63 yards Friday. No penalty was more costly than running back Isaiah Jacobs’ illegal chop block, which negated Tagovailoa’s 41-yard touchdown pass to Dontay Demus Jr. (team-high eight catches for 77 yards) that would’ve tied the game in the fourth quarter.
“We keep coaching them through it, just like anything else when you deal with these 18- to 22-year-olds,” Locksley said. “We’ll show them on tape. We’ll make the necessary corrections. If they continue to do these [penalties], we’ll have to get new guys in the play because good teams don’t beat themselves.”
Friday’s game was made even more difficult with the absence of starting cornerback Deonte Banks and defensive lineman Mosiah Nasili-Kite, who did not travel to Illinois because of injuries, and inside linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay, who suffered an upper-body injury in the season opener. A targeting penalty on sophomore defensive back Lavonte Gater, who leapt into the face of Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters in the first quarter, further depleted their defensive depth.
For most of the game, Maryland’s offense stalled after averaging 46 points in season-opening wins over West Virginia and Howard. Tagovailoa, who went 32-for-43 with 350 yards and a touchdown, struggled to find any receivers down the field, forcing him to either keep the ball or settle for short passes.
Tagovailoa tried to jump-start Maryland’s offense with a 37-yard pass to Jarrett (four catches for 70 yards) in the opening seconds of the second quarter. Tayon Fleet-Davis’ 16-yard run put the Terps in scoring position, but Demus was stopped on third down and Maryland settled for a 32-yard field goal by Petrino to go up 3-0.
“We were expecting them to play more man [coverage],” Tagovailoa said. “They did a good job of mixing the coverages up. It’s my fault for not using my legs more and scrambling out of the pocket instead of stepping up. That was one of the more adjustments that we made.”
Maryland didn’t score a touchdown until the third quarter, when Tagovailoa’s 35-yard run set up Davis’ second rushing touchdown of the season to make it 10-3. After forcing a quick three-and-out, the Terps looked like they were going to score again, but Davis (11 carries for 62 yards) fumbled at the 7-yard-line. Illinois went on a eight-play, 93-yard drive, capped by a 38-yard touchdown run by Illinois’ Josh McCary to even the score at 10.
With Maryland’s offense desperately trying to find momentum, the defense held steady. In the first quarter, Peters, who finished 10-for-26 for 185 yards, took a pair of deep shots that were broken up by cornerback Tarheeb Still and safety Nick Cross, who finished with six tackles, three pass breakups and an interception. A blocked field-goal attempt by Ami Finau kept the game scoreless late in the first quarter.
“The defense goes out with there with the mentally to make plays to change the game,” Still said. “When everyone’s on the same page and locked into what they got to do, I feel like that’s when we are our best.”
With the Fighting Illini deep in the red zone in the second quarter, Cross broke up Peters’ potential go-ahead touchdown pass. After Terps sophomore running back Peny Boone fumbled at his own 25, Cross picked off Peters inside the 10 on the next play to put Maryland back on offense with 5:38 to go in the third quarter.
Terps junior linebacker Durell Nchami was a force off the edge, recording two of Maryland’s six sacks. When Illinois was trying to make a play during the closing seconds of the first half, Nchami brought down Peters for a loss of 9 yards.
Maryland’s defense came through in the fourth quarter. Walk-on defensive lineman Greg Rose recorded a pair of sacks, forcing Illinois to punt. In the final 47 seconds, Tagovailoa took advantage of the solid field position as he completed passes to Jarrett and Davis before Petrino, who kicked his first ever game-winning field goal, sent the Terps home with smiles of their faces after missing from that same distance earlier in the game.
“We have so much faith and trust in Joe,” Tagovailoa said. “He makes kicks like that every day. I’m happy he made the kick for the team and we are sitting here victorious.”
Next Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
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