- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2021

Maryland’s high-octane offense was tempered by turnovers and Illinois’ defense in its Big Ten Conference opener Friday night. Yet, Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa steadied himself when it mattered, leading Maryland on back-to-back drives to come back and beat the Fighting Illini, 20-17.

“A Big Ten road win — tough to come by,” Maryland coach Mike Lockley said. “Our guys had every reason to cash it in when things didn’t go our way.” 

“I was really proud of how they fought and overcame a ton of mistakes on our part.”

Maryland (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) won with a Joseph Petrino 32-yard field goal as time expired, scoring the game’s last 10 points in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter. The Terrapins are 3-0 for the first time in five years.

“There’s no telling what we can do,” Petrino said. The senior attempted three kicks in the game — all from the same 32-yard distance — missing the first, but making the final two.

“We faced a lot of adversity during this game, but we pushed through, and it was a great team win,” Petrino said

Tagovailoa finished with 350 yards and one touchdown on 32-of-43 passing. The junior struggled to find consistency — as did the rest of the Terrapins’ offense — in the first half. Tagovailoa started to find his game coming out of halftime and saved his best plays of the game for when Maryland needed them the most.

“I think the defense did an outstanding job getting us the ball back in crucial moments,” Tagovailoa said. “I think that’s one thing that gave us motivation, the confidence to get their backs and win the game.”

Tagovailoa came out swinging on Maryland’s penultimate drive, zipping balls with authority to his receivers to take the Terrapins inside the Illinois 10. He went 5-of-6 on the drive, capped off by a Tayon Fleet-Davis washing machine-style spin move into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown reception. The Terrpins then only had to go 32 yards on the final drive to set Petrino up for the winning kick after forcing an Illinois punt on a 4th-and-39 from the Illini 7-yard line.

“We practice situations like this,” Tagovailoa said of his game-tying and game-winning drives.

Illinois (1-3, 0-2 Big Ten) used a series of strong showings from its backfield and red-zone defense to keep themselves in the game throughout. However, Illini quarterback Brandon Peters struggled, going 10-of-26 for only 185 yards and an interception. Maryland’s defense provided pressure on Peters for most of the night, sacking him five times.

Maryland’s offense, however, didn’t get rolling until the second half. Tagovailoa opened the third quarter 3-for-3 with a 35-yard run to lead the Terrapins’ first touchdown drive, capped off by a Tayon Fleet-Davis two-yard touchdown run.

“I thought we all were affected by playing in a tough environment,” Locksley said. “It took us a lot of time to settle down.”

That roll continued on Maryland’s subsequent drive, but Fleet-Davis fumbled on an off-balance run inside the Illinois 10 for the Terrapins’ first turnover of the season. Illinois answered with a 93-yard drive that took less than four minutes, punctuated by freshman running back Joshua McCray’s first career touchdown to tie the game at 10.

Maryland then fumbled again for their second in three plays. This time, the fumble was by sophomore running back Peny Boone. The Terrapins’ defense once again showed up on offense, with Bowie, Maryland, native Nick Cross picking off Peters on the next play from scrimmage, but the drive stalled.

Illinois turned once more to its ground game — with a dash of fortuity reminiscent of the Oakland Raiders’ infamous ‘Holy Roller’ play — to take its only lead of the game. Illini running back Reggie Love broke a 32-yard gain down the left sideline on the second play of the fourth quarter. Surrounded by three Terrapins, Love had the ball punched out by Maryland defensive back Jordan Mosley, only to have it recovered by teammate Casey Washington, who scooped it up and ran the remaining 31 yards into the end zone to put Illinois up, 17-10.

“These guys, they’re not scoreboard watchers,” Locksley said. “The big question we had to get answered was, ‘How will we handle getting punched in the mouth and facing adversity?’”

“They passed that test with flying colors today.”

The early stages of the game were predominantly a battle of field position. Maryland started each of its first two drives inside its own 10-yard line, only mustering one first down and finishing with 40 yards of offense in the first quarter.

Illinois put together a nine-play, 77-yard drive late in the first that was keyed by a Peters’ 40-yard catch-and-run to McCray under pressure. Maryland defensive back Lavonte Gater launched himself high into Peters’ upper body as the ball was being thrown that led to his ejection for targeting. Maryland’s defense bailed Gater out by getting a 3rd-down stop and blocking a James McCourt 26-yard field goal attempt.

Maryland’s first drive of the second quarter went 66 yards deep into Fighting Illini territory, and Tagovailoa settled into more of a rhythm, completing 5-of-6 passes on the drive. The Terrapins stalled at the 14, and Petrino opened the scoring with a 32-yard field goal.

Duplicity ensued on the next Terrapins drive, as Maryland tried another field goal from the same spot after a stalled drive, but Petrino pushed that 32-yard kick wide right. Locksley said the 3-3 halftime score necessitated a few corrections and adjustments in the locker room

“If you really look back in the second half, I thought we moved the ball downfield just about every drive,” Tagovailoa said “We got into rhythm. We got into sync.”

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

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