Maryland is on the brink of bowl eligibility, which seems very plausible given the way the schedule has fallen together since the Terps opened the season by upsetting then-No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field and yet still remarkable with what has transpired for the program the past five months off the field.
With a 63-33 victory Saturday over Illinois, Maryland (5-3, 3-2) has four games remaining to reach that magic number — six — and have a chance to play in a bowl game for the second time in the past three seasons.
The Terps picked up 712 yards offensively, their most in a game since 1974, and scored more points in a game against a Football Bowl Division school (previously known as Division I-A) since 1954. Maryland led at one point, 49-12, before clearing its bench.
The remainder of the schedule is not quite the gauntlet the Terps have faced in most seasons since joining the Big Ten in 2014, but the gimme games are over with and Maryland could be the underdog in all four games.
Here are three takeaways from the win over Illinois:
1. Matt Canada has to find ways to get the ball more to sophomore running back Javon Leake.
Ever since he got on the field as a freshman last season, Leake has found a way to make explosive plays and score touchdowns. After becoming the first Maryland player since D.J. Adams to score four touchdowns in a game Saturday, including three in just five carries against Illinois, Leake now has seven rushing touchdowns in 21 career carries.
In his first game last season against Towson, he scored on a 61-yard run. In his second, at Ohio State, he scored on a 20-yard run. He also had an 82-yard kickoff return against Indiana to set up a touchdown.
After adding touchdowns earlier this season at Bowling Green and Michigan, Leake had a career game against the Fighting Illini. It started with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and kept going.
By the time he was finished early late in the fourth quarter, Leake had also scored rushing touchdowns of 64, 43 and 27 yards, while accounting for 274 all-purpose yards. He rushed for 140 yards.
Leake was clearly not the only playmaker on the field Saturday against a team that is one of the worst in the country defensively, but it appears that he will now be in the rotation with senior Ty Johnson and redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland Jr.
2. As good a year as Tre Watson is having, getting a second ejection is not going to help his case to be named first-team all-Big Ten.
The graduate transfer linebacker was obviously fired up playing against his former team and coach Lovie Smith. As is often the case, it turned out that Watson might have been a little too pumped.
Not that the hit on freshman M.J. Rivers II in the second quarter was dirty. With Rivers flushed out nearly to his team’s sideline and being chased from behind by senior linebacker Jesse Aniebonam, Watson closed on Rivers and hit him a little too high.
Unlike the targeting call that got Watson tossed from the Michigan game after hitting Donovan Peoples-Jones on a punt return, Watson’s momentum carried him into Rivers, knocking him out of the game.
Watson’s ejection cost him at least a share of the lead in the Big Ten in tackles since he only had three Saturday before being thrown out and is now tied (with 78) with Northwestern’s Chase Gallagher, who had 10 tackles in his team’s win over No. 20 Wisconsin.
Fortunately for the Terps, Watson will return for their home game this week against Michigan State. Considering how the Spartans recovered in their win over red-hot Purdue on Saturday behind the play of freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi, Maryland will need to be at full strength.
3. Kasim Hill is seemingly more confident and moving better, but he still needs to be careful.
After a rocky start when he fumbled the game’s first snap from center and then got sacked on third down, Maryland’s redshirt freshman quarterback had one of the best performances of his career.
Not only did he throw for a career-high 265 yards and tie a career-high with three touchdowns, but Hill also appeared to be moving with the same speed and grace he exhibited before tearing his ACL as a freshman.
It was good to see Hill make some of the throws he did — and have a couple of great catches by his receivers as well — but with all the playmakers Maryland has, Hill will have chances to run and the Terps will need him to do that on occasion.
Hill showed that ability on Saturday, though his 13-yard run to keep a second-quarter drive going that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jeshaun Jones came after a nice spin move by the quarterback.
It also might have given Maryland fans unsettling memories of the play Hill made last year against Central Florida that ended with him being sandwiched by two defenders and being lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Short of leaving himself exposed like that, Hill needs to continue to play with the freedom and versatility he demonstrated against Illinois for the Terps to have a chance to knock off a couple of their late-season opponents.