After wins against West Virginia and Howard to start the season, Maryland football will look to extend its undefeated start to the season at 9 p.m. Sept. 17 against Illinois.
It marks the first trip to Champaign, Ill., in program history for the Terps and only the second-ever meeting between the two schools. Maryland defeated Illinois, 63-33, in College Park in 2018, the most points the Terps have scored against a conference opponent since joining the Big Ten.
It also marks Maryland’s first road contest of the season. Illinois will be looking to bounce back after losses to the University of Texas at San Antonio and Virginia.
Here are three things to watch out for in Friday night’s matchup at Memorial Stadium:
No. 1: How will Maryland’s offense react to a hostile crowd?
While quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is in his second year as the Terps’ starter, Friday night will be his first time playing in front of a raucous Big Ten road crowd. In his four starts last season, there were few or no fans in the stands. However, it will be a much different story in Champaign.
“It’s going to be a crazy crowd, I hope there’s a lot of people there,” Tagovailoa said. “We’re practicing our cadence and how to handle stuff like that. Coach [Dan] Enos and coach [Michael] Locksley have been in situations like that before. They’re helping me [with] how to handle situations like that.”
Staying in sync will be pivotal for the Terps to avoid procedure penalties, which set the offense behind the chains. Sophomore center Aric Harris will be spearheading those efforts, ensuring that his timing with Tagovailoa remains consistent.
One of the best ways for Maryland to quiet the rowdy home crowd is to start off strong offensively. Fortunately for the Terps, the offense has shown a propensity for strong starts. Maryland has scored points on the opening possession in each of its first two games. On the opening drive against West Virginia, senior Joseph Petrino kicked a 45-yard field goal. Against Howard, senior receiver Dontay Demus hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass.
Fueled by explosive plays, the Terps’ offense has enjoyed a strong rhythm, averaging 46 points and 535 yards per game thus far. However, both the Fighting Illini defense and fans will look to disrupt that groove for Tagovailoa in a new environment.
No. 2: How does Maryland defend quarterback Brandon Peters?
Peters suffered a shoulder injury in Illinois’ season-opening 30-22 win against Nebraska Aug. 28, but the senior quarterback is expected to return for the Fighting Illini Sept. 17. A threat both with his arm and legs, Peters is able to extend the play when the pocket breaks down.
“A guy that has a strong arm, a classic drop-back passer that throws the ball accurately,” Locksley said of Peters. “For them to get him back for our game, there’s definitely a concern because I thought Artur Sitkowski had also been playing decently well for them, not turning it over. They’ve got two good quarterbacks and they’ll be a challenge for us.”
As Locksley described, Peters does a good job of protecting the ball. Therefore, it’s paramount that Maryland’s secondary is opportunistic and makes strong plays on the ball. Through two games, senior Jakorian Bennett has been one of the leaders in that category with a pair of interceptions in the opening two weeks. Junior Nick Cross and sophomore Tarheeb Still have made plays in the secondary as well.
The Terps’ defensive line will look to create consistent pressure to disrupt Peters. Graduate student Sam Okuayinonu and redshirt sophomore Deshawn Holt have flashed off the edge (two sacks each). Their explosiveness off the edge forces opposing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket and disrupts the timing of throws to receivers.
That disruptiveness will be particularly important early as Peters attempts to regain a rapport with his receivers after missing the previous two games.
No. 3: The red-zone efficiency of Maryland’s offense.
Through two games this season, Maryland has scored on 11 of 14 red-zone opportunities, with seven resulting in a touchdown. In a hostile environment on the road, the Terps’ red-zone efficiency needs to remain at a high level.
While Maryland’s wide receiving corps has enjoyed success inside the 20-yard-line, senior tight end Chig Okonkwo has thrived near the end zone as well. He has a touchdown catch in each of the Terps’ first two games, emerging as a reliable red-zone target for Tagovailoa. Standing at 6-foot-3 and weighing 250 pounds, Okonkwo is often a mismatch against a cornerback or a safety.
“A touchdown in both games, I’m doing everything that I’m trying to do,” Okonkwo said. “It’s all going the way I’ve envisioned it so far.”
Beyond Okonkwo and the wide receiver unit, one of the keys for Maryland’s red-zone offense is balance. Redshirt senior Tayon Fleet-Davis spearheads the young running back young group, while sophomores Isaiah Jacobs and Peny Boone have displayed flashes of brilliance.
In order to keep the Fighting Illini defense on its heels, the Terps’ will look to find success both on the ground and in the air. That effectiveness on the ground will allow Tagovailoa to employ play-action and run-pass option looks. Tagovailoa flourishes in those sets, as he’s often able to fit the ball into tight windows with pinpoint accuracy.
If Maryland is able to build on its red-zone success, that bodes well for its offense in an unfamiliar environment Friday night.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics