A week in the life of a college football team doesn’t typically produce such a dramatic turnaround as Maryland experienced between its road game at Iowa last week and Saturday’s home game against Illinois.
Yet after returning from a shutout loss where the offense help the Hawkeyes score more touchdowns on defense than the Terps produced themselves, interim coach Matt Canada had a message for his players.
It came during a team meeting last Sunday, the day after Maryland’s 23-0 loss to then-No. 19 Iowa in which the offense managed just 115 yards.
“We said it’s time to get going and we wanted to be sitting here tonight at 7:34 [p.m.] and be 5-3,” Canada said after Saturday’s game against Illinois.
Led by sophomore running back Javon Leake and redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill, the Terps racked up 712 yards of offense Saturday in a 63-33 demolition of the defensively challenged Fighting Illini.
“I’m really, really proud of our football team and our players and really everybody in our building for winning tonight,” Canada said. “It was a great win. I’m happy for our team.”
Leake, the team’s third-string running back, scored four touchdowns — the first on a 97-yard kickoff return — while rushing for 140 yards on just five carries and accounting for 274 all-purpose yards. He became the first Terp to score four touchdowns since D.J. Adams in the 2010 Military Bowl.
“I was blessed with the opportunity to go out, my O-line was doing a great job of blocking,” said Leake, who had scored four career touchdowns before Saturday. “I just did my job, hit the hole. They just set me up to make plays.”
Hill, who has struggled with his passing efficiency and touch in his first season as a starter, tied his career high with three touchdown passes while completing 11 of 19 passes for a career-high 265 yards.
Add two touchdowns by freshman wide receiver Jeshaun Jones and one each for senior wide receiver Jahrvis Davenport and freshman fullback Chigoziem Okonkwo, and the Terps (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) had their highest point total against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since 1954.
“I think we had a really good week of practice this week, everybody was locked in," Hill said. “Like Coach Canada said, trying to get to 5-3. We just went out and had fun today.”
It didn’t start that way. Actually it was reminiscent of the way the loss in Iowa City began on Maryland’s opening possession. Hill fumbled the first-down snap. Senior running back Ty Johnson dropped a pass on second down. Hill was sacked on third down.
Illinois (3-5, 1-4) capitalized by taking a 3-0 lead on the first of four field goals by senior Chase McLaughlin, the only way coach Lovie Smith’s team scored until three long touchdowns against Maryland’s second-team defense after the Terps stretched their lead to 49-12.
“We went on the first drive of offense. It wasn’t great focus,” Canada said. “But after that, I thought we focused on our jobs, we stuck together, we stayed in our lane and played really well in all phases of the game.
“Obviously late in the game we were able to play a lot of players, which is a positive. We took care of the ball. We didn’t have any turnovers, which is good. I’m really excited that our players are sitting here 5-3.”
The victory put Maryland within one victory of becoming bowl eligible for the second time in three years. The Terps will have four games to accomplish it, starting Saturday at home against Michigan State.
Not only did Canada do a good job preparing his team’s offense against one of the most porous defenses in FBS, but he helped keep his players from getting caught up in the swirl of attention surrounding third-year coach DJ Durkin, who remains on administrative leave.
There was some concern going into the game that the Terps might be distracted by what happened — or didn’t happen — in Baltimore earlier this week, when the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents met to discuss a nearly 200-page report looking into allegations of a “toxic” culture.
Players were mostly kept off-limits to the media and Canada deflected any questions about the investigation by saying the Terps were thinking only about the Fighting Illini.
Asked Saturday about how he got the team to ignore the outside noise, Canada said, “All we talked about was sitting here today [taking] questions from you, talking about how we got five wins. And that’s all we talked about.
”Getting better every day, sticking together every day, leaning on each other every day. That’s all we talked about and we did a great job.”
Before an announced crowd of 30,387 at Maryland Stadium — including a student section that was mostly empty for the entire game — the 16½-point favorite Terps played the role well.
The offensive outburst began with Leake’s long kickoff return, aided by a block by Johnson that erased the last would-be tackler at around the Illinois 30-yard line.
It was followed shortly by a 46-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Davenport on a crossing pattern where he found plenty of space after Jones blindsided a defender with a crushing block.
Those two plays also summed up the you-first attitude of these Terps.
“I would say those are two examples. The whole point of the story is that our guys have checked their egos and they just want to win,” Canada said. “We are sitting here 5-3 with a bunch of kids that are playing hard for each and care about each other.”
Notes: Johnson, who gained 18 yards on just three carries, sat out the second half with a calf injury. … Graduate linebacker Tre Watson, who came into the game as the Big Ten’s leading tackler, finished with three tackles against his former team before being ejected late in the first half for a targeting call against Illinois freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers II. It marked the second time Watson has been ejected for targeting this season. Unlike the second-half hit against Michigan, which caused Watson to miss the first half against Rutgers, Watson is eligible to start next game. … Canada replaced Hill with true freshman Tyler DeSue at the start of the fourth quarter.