COLLEGE PARK — Some may blame the blanket of drizzle that enveloped SECU Stadium from kickoff to the final gun.
Some may blame complacency from looking ahead to a bye week with time to rest and be away from football.
Some may blame the absence of key contributors on offense and defense, including tight end Corey Dyches, safety Dante Trader Jr., cornerback Tarheeb Still and offensive lineman Corey Bullock.
Maryland coach Mike Locksley wouldn’t hear any of it. Put the blame for this disappointment squarely on him.
“This goes back to us. We didn’t play our best. And that’s the frustrating part for me as a coach. And it’s my job to get us to play our best, it’s my job to get us coaching our best, and today, it didn’t happen,” Locksley said.
Illinois kicker Caleb Griffin hit a 43-yard field goal as time expired, and the Fighting Illini spoiled a dreary Maryland homecoming, beating the Terrapins 27-24.
“Obviously Illinois, they played hard as I expected that they would. But as I sit here or stand here before you, the more I play this thing back in my head even now, what happened today had very few things to do with Illinois,” Locklsey said.
Down by three entering the fourth quarter, the Terrapins’ defense forced three-consecutive Illini three-and-outs, but a lethargic offense that only rushed for 64 yards in the second half couldn’t get past its own 43 yard line on two straight drives.
Maryland (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) got things going on their final drive of the game with 4:19 to go, moving in four plays from their 32 to the Illinois 29. On third-and-6, though, an Antwain Littleton rush to the left side was stuffed for a loss of a yard.
“We didn’t block it the way it probably should be blocked. And you know, I hate commenting on it because I don’t know and didn’t see the play personally to see where it was a breakdown. But I can tell you every play is designed to work and we got a blocker for everybody typically and obviously somewhere down the line we didn’t make a block or we missed the read,” Locksley said of the call.
Kicker Jack Howes would tie the game at 24 with a 48-yard field goal, equaling a career long. The three points would be the only ones Maryland would score in the fourth quarter.
“We knew we needed a touchdown to win, a field goal to tie. I would have loved to get the third-and- 6 executed to keep the drive alive,” Locksley said.
“Figured that our defense had been playing well the last three drives, that worst case scenario is we hold them and maybe get one more crack to go down, which is why we tried to use some of those timeouts.”
Illinois, instead, responded with the knockout punch in the final 1:31. Illini quarterback Luke Altmyer made his biggest play of the game on the drive, finding receiver Casey Washington 29 yards downfield in front of the Illinois sideline to move the ball into Maryland territory. A 12-yard pass to running back Aidan Laughery and a 9-yard Altmyer run later, Griffin had all the yardage he needed to hit the game-winning kick.
“Unfortunately, they hit the big play down the sideline, gave them an opportunity to get themselves in field goal range. And it goes back to like I said: It wasn’t much as what they did as much as what we did not do,” Locksley said.
Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa finished with 266 yards passing and two touchdowns on 27 completions, and running back Roman Hemby tallied 88 all-purpose yards, 70 of those on the ground. The Terrapins’ team rushing total of 93 marks the first time in seven games they’ve failed to break 100.
“We’re not going to win every, and anybody that watched the game can see that today where we had some plays where we looked unstoppable and some plays where we looked stoppable and that’s because we’re playing good opponents. So I feel like we just got to take the good with the bad and try to make the good happen more than the bad,” Hemby said.
The second-consecutive loss after a 5-0 start takes a lot of wind for a special season out of Maryland’s sails, especially against the Illini (3-4, 1-3), who came to College Park losers of four of their last five games.
“I still got a lot of faith in his team. Still a lot of football left to be played, all of our goals are still ahead of us. But we’ve made it a little more difficult for ourselves, and we’ve got to do the work that’s necessary to get us going back in the right direction.”
The Terrapins went down early after Illinois’ first drive thanks to some busted coverage. Altmyer found receiver Pat Bryant handfighting away from Ja’Quan Sheppard, who started in place of the injured Still. Sheppard slipped and was left on the sideline while Bryant sprinted to the end zone for the game’s first score.
After a pass deflection led to an interception by safety Glendon Miller, Maryland struck on their final drive of the first quarter with a familiar wrinkle. On fourth-and-2 from the Illinois 4, Locksley went for it, and sent in linebacker Sean Greeley.
Tagovailoa rolled right, and found Greeley untouched for the pitch-and-catch score, much like he did Sept. 23 at Michigan State. It was Greeley’s second score of the season, the first Maryland defensive player to accomplish such a feat.
In addition to the pick, Maryland’s defensive pressure was notable in the first half, with four different Terrapins — Donnell Brown, Kellan Wyatt, Jaishawn Barham and Fa’Najae Gotay — notching sacks of Altmyer.
Brown’s sack would help force a 45-yard field goal attempt by Griffin, which was missed wide left. Tagovailoa and company would use the momentum to put together their most sustained drive of the half, culminating in a Kaden Prather 27-yard touchdown on a corner route for Maryland’s only lead, 14-7.
Uncharacteristic mistakes, however, would greatly change the complexion of this game from the final moments of the first half into the third quarter.
As Maryland was driving with 1:37 to go, Prather caught and had converted a first down, but fumbled the ball to the Illini at the Illinois 33.
The Terrapins first fumble of the season was the first of three critical mistakes in the final 2:00 and the third-straight week they’ve struggled in the final moments of the first half.
Fuller was dinged with a 15-yard hands to the face penalty three plays later to put the Illini into Maryland territory, then Barham drug down Altmyer by his facemask giving Illinois the ball at the 11.
Three plays later on fourth-and 1 inches from the goal line, Illini coach Bret Bielema was set to try a field goal. After Locksley called a time out —to warn the defense that Illinois may try to get the Terrapins to jump offside, he said — his old friend reversed course. True freshman running back Kaden Feagin plowed in from the 1 to even the score at 14.
“I mean, it just happened at some inopportune times when we couldn’t afford it to happen, especially coming off the turnover we had on offense. We needed to get out of that half without giving up a score,” Locksley said.
Illinois was set to receive the ball after halftime, but Locksley, ever a lover of having the first possession of the second half, tried to surprise the Illini with an onside kick. It didn’t work, and the prime field position coupled with another personal foul by Fuller set Illinois up for their third score.
At the Maryland 15, Altmyer rolled left and found Isaiah Williams wide open in the flat. The Big Ten’s leader in receptions turned upfield and ran in for his first touchdown of the season and a 21-14 lead.
“We always fight to get what we call that two-score swing between the halves. That’s one of the reasons why we tried the surprise onside there, to steal that possession back. Obviously didn’t get it, execute it — was there, didn’t get it executed. And then we gave up a touchdown, which then allowed them to have the two score swing that we tried to fight for,” Locksley said.
Sheppard got a measure of redemption on the next drive, ripping away a ball from Williams at the goal line for what would have been a touchdown. The subsequent Griffin field goal would give the Illini a 10-point lead.
The Terrapins struggled to move the ball in the second half, with Tagovailoa trying to generate big plays but overthrowing some receivers and falling victim to Illinois sacks and hurries.
Maryland would rally on their final drive of the third quarter — their longest of the day by plays (11) and time (4:18) to inch closer. Hemby accounted for 29 of the drive’s 65 yards, and fellow back Antwain Littleton punctuated it with a 4-yard scoring run to cut the Illinois lead to 24-21 — Maryland’s final touchdown of a game in which they were favored by 14.