Terps defense continues to impress and more takeaways from Maryland’s 20-17 victory over Illinois

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Maryland football coach Mike Locksley’s return to Illinois, where he spent three seasons as the offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008, featured a wild game with sloppy play from the Terps and the Fighting Illini.

But Maryland kicker Joseph Petrino’s game-winning 32-yard field goal in the final seconds Friday night erased the bad penalties and costly turnovers that threatened to derail the Terps’ 20-17 win.

Maryland’s trip to Champaign wasn’t just a homecoming for Locksley and associate head coach/special teams coordinator Ron Zook, who was the Fighting Illini coach from 2005 to 2011; it was the Terps’ first game there since joining the conference in 2014.

After Illinois allowed 42 points in a loss to Virginia, the Fighting Illini (1-2) didn’t allow Maryland (3-0) — which scored a combined 92 points against West Virginia and Howard — to generate any offensive rhythm until the final minutes of regulation. Terps junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa continued to show discipline in the pocket, taking what the defense gave him and not trying to force throws into tight windows.

After Tagovailoa’s 350-yard performance Friday, he has 956 passing yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions through three games this season, helping Maryland start 3-0 for the first time since 2016.

Here are three takeaways from an eventful and unorthodox Friday night at Memorial Stadium:

The Terps overcome a sloppy performance.

From a 32-yard missed field goal in the second quarter to eight penalties, the Terps came close to beating themselves. Illinois wasn’t doing anything special on offense that Maryland couldn’t handle.

Several Illinois scoring opportunities came after Maryland committed a turnover or a costly penalty. The Terps didn’t turn the ball over in their first two games, but in the third quarter Friday, running back Tayon Fleet-Davis fumbled at Illinois’ 7-yard line. The Fighting Illini responded with an eight-play drive capped by a 38-yard touchdown run by Josh McCary to tie the game at 10.

The majority of the Terps’ penalties were unnecessary. In the first quarter, defensive back Lavonte Gater was ejected for targeting after leaping into the facemask of quarterback Brandon Peters. In the fourth quarter, running back Isaiah Jacobs was called for a chop block, which wiped away Tagovailoa’s game-tying 41-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr.

When the Terps get deeper into conference play, these are the kinds of mistakes they will need to avoid.

“We overcame a ton of mistakes on our part,” Locksley said. “The turnovers are the thing that stood out to me, to have two fumbles that could have come back to haunt us, and those are the ones we got to get corrected.”

Maryland’s offense has received a ton of praise. The defense might be just as good.

Maryland’s offense received a ton of praise after a 2-0 start, and rightfully so. The Terps’ victory over Illinois showed that the defense deserves an equal amount of attention.

When the Terps struggled to get anything going offensively Friday, the defense kept the game within reach.

Maryland’s defensive line made Peters uncomfortable in the pocket throughout the game, sacking him six times. Defensive end Greg Rose, the second walk-on to receive a scholarship during training camp, sacked Peters twice during Illinois’ final drive. Junior linebacker Durell Nchami picked up two sacks, while defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu recorded his second and third sacks of the season.

Junior safety Nick Cross also made plays throughout the evening. The former four-star recruit broke up a potential go-ahead touchdown pass by Peters late in the second quarter and intercepted a pass at the Terps’ 10-yard-line after running back Peny Boone fumbled deep in Maryland territory in the third quarter.

With defensive back Deonte Banks (shoulder) and defensive lineman Mosiah Nasili-Kite (toe) out, freshman defensive back Dante Trader, redshirt sophomore linebacker Deshawn Holt and freshman defensive lineman Darrell Jackson and freshman linebacker Branden Jennings stepped up.

“We played a lot of different bodies on defense,” Locksley said. “To be able to play how we played on with our front seven, and not having a guy like Mosiah Nasili-Kite, all-conference performer, shows we’ve been able to add depth to our defense.”

Taulia Tagovailoa remained composed in the pocket.

Even though Illinois gave Tagovailoa problems, he displayed a sense of calmness that Maryland has been looking for from its starting quarterback. With the game on the line, Tagovailoa made key throws that put the Terps in position to win.

“I thought [Tagovailoa] managed the offense, as well as you can, especially with us being in that situation,” Locksley said. “I thought early in the game, [Illinois] did a good job, trying to mix the coverages up for [Tagovailoa]. Once we kind of got them pegged by what they were doing, we were able to get [Tagovailoa] settled down and he made some big throws.”

With Maryland trailing 17-10 with under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa threw a 17-yard pass to Demus before connecting with junior wide receiver Jeshaun Jones for a 24-yard completion. On the next play, Tagovailoa hit Davis for a 10-yard touchdown that evened the score at 17.

After Illinois was forced to punt from its own 7 with 47 seconds left in regulation, Tagovailoa moved the Terps quickly down the field. Tagovailoa found sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett for a 26-yard completion and hit Fleet-Davis for a 6-yard gain that put Petrino in position to kick the game-winning field goal.

“[Offensive coordinator] [Dan] Enos does a good job at bringing back to neutral, as well as my receivers, running backs, and tight ends,” Tagovailoa said. “Just taking everything one play at a time. I think all that comes with the brotherhood that we have over here.”

KENT STATE@MARYLAND

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM

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