COLLEGE PARK – Maryland had two scripts to its first six games. In the first, the Terps cruised to a blowout over an overmatched foe. In the second — which has happened only once — they suffered an expected loss against one of the nation’s elite squads.
It looked like such games would continue for Maryland, which has a pair of remaining matchups against top-10 teams interspersed with an otherwise weak Big Ten schedule.
But the Terps introduced a third and uniquely disappointing result Saturday when Caleb Griffin’s 43-yard field goal eked through the right upright as time expired to give the Illinois Fighting Illini a 27-24 win at SECU Stadium.
Griffin and his teammates embarked on a frenzied run after the kick, sprinting all the way to the opposite end zone, where they slid in glee. Meanwhile, Maryland (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) trudged back into its tunnel after losing to an Illinois team (3-4, 1-2 Big Ten) that entered the afternoon with no wins over Power 5 teams.
The loss denied the Terps a chance to become bowl eligible for the third straight year and at the earliest point since the 2001 season. They enter their bye week on a two-game losing streak.
“We didn’t play very well in any of the three phases. ... We did not play to our standard, and it’s frustrating to watch because I still have a lot of faith and belief in this team,” coach Michael Locksley said. “And, as I just told them, the adversity that we find ourselves in today, we put ourselves there. So the only people that can get us out of it is us.”
Illinois took seven plays to travel 50 yards to set up Griffin’s walk-off. It got the ball back with 1:31 left after a questionable play call on Maryland’s final offensive drive.
The Terps, who’d scored on just one of their last six possessions, got the ball down three with just over four minutes remaining and two timeouts. They gained 35 yards on their first two plays, setting up a first-and-10 from the Illini 33. Two Taulia Tagovailoa runs gained 4 yards, setting up third-and-6.
Offensive play caller Josh Gattis gave the ball to Antwain Littleton II on what Locksley said postgame was a run play designed for third-and-mediums. It didn’t work; Littleton lost a yard and Jack Howes kicked a 48-yard field goal to tie the game, giving the ball back to Illinois with enough time to win the game.
“We obviously expected a look and we didn’t get the look maybe. We weren’t efficient; we didn’t block it the way it probably should be blocked,” Locksley said. “I hate commenting on it because I ... didn’t see the play [on film] to see where it was a breakdown.”
Maryland had two timeouts to work with; one could’ve been used to give Locksley and his offense another chance to talk through one of the biggest plays of the game. The coach said postgame he was hoping to use them for another offensive possession in case his defense forced a quick change of possession.
The Terps were inconsistent running the ball. Maryland finished the game with a 35% success rate (percentage of plays with positive EPA) on rush plays, per Game on Paper. Littleton had five runs to that point; just one gained more than 4 yards.
Coming into the game, Locksley cited the need to execute on methodical drives against an Illinois team he said limited explosive plays. Maryland didn’t have a play that gained more than 30 yards Saturday and had an explosive play rate in the 36th percentile, per Game on Paper.
That necessitated a measured attack the Terps didn’t have. They converted a season-low 33.3 percent of their 15 third-down attempts, stalling numerous drives. Maryland scored a touchdown to cut its deficit to three at the end of the third quarter but punted on its next two drives.
Its defense responded by forcing three straight three-and-outs, setting up the drive that ended in Howes’ score. Locksley cited that trio of stops as a factor in his decision.
But Illinois marched down the field, using a 29-yard completion along the right sideline and a 9-yard scurry from quarterback Luke Altmyer to set up Griffin’s decisive strike.
End-of-half sloppiness re-emerges
For the third straight week, Maryland entered the half with a chance for points and got none.
The previous two iterations saw the Terps blow a chance to kick a late field goal — Jeshaun Jones failed to get out of bounds against Indiana in time, and Tagovailoa threw a check-down that let the clock run out against Ohio State. This week, Maryland set up a 14-point swing in Illinois’ favor.
Kaden Prather looked to have converted a third down to set Maryland inside the Illini 30-yard line with just over a minute and a half left in the half. But Prather, in a struggle to push forward for yards, fumbled for Maryland’s lone turnover.
His mistake cost Maryland a chance to extend its lead to 21-7. Future errors from the Terps’ defense aided Illini’s effort to knot the sides up.
Quashon Fuller and Jaishawn Barham committed personal fouls — the latter a roughing-the-passer call, that provided 24 of the 73 yards Illinois traversed en route to a game-tying touchdown.
Bruised and battered
The Terps were without four starters: cornerback Tarheeb Still, safety Dante Trader Jr., offensive guard Corey Bullock and tight end Corey Dyches.
They’ll have time to recuperate with the break in the schedule. The Terps go into their bye off the most disappointing loss of the season, a continued deflation of a balloon that popped slightly after the fourth quarter against Ohio State.
“We feel like we didn’t play to our standard and that’s the main reason why we got the result that we got out there today,” running back Roman Hemby said. “I feel like it was us-versus-us the whole game and we didn’t make the plays that we needed to make when it mattered the most. I feel like, going into this bye week, we got to get some guys healthy and mold together.
“This is the turning point for the rest of our season. I feel like we’ve got to get back to the drawing board and put some things together to where we can finish the season on a high note.”