Ja’Quan Sheppard tripped over himself and flopped to the ground, defeated. The defensive back’s eyes turned away from the Illinois receiver streaking into the end zone, one who bested him en route to a 44-yard touchdown, and instead searched for a flag that wouldn’t come.
Sheppard gave up the opening blow in the Terps’ 27-24 loss to the Fighting Illini Saturday. As he came off the field, veteran Terps linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II talked up his fellow senior.
“Playing corner is a tough-ass position,” Hyppolite said. “‘Quan is a guy who really takes pride in his work. He’s going to make mistakes. He’s not perfect. I make mistakes. I’m not perfect. ... He just made a mistake and we just want to keep his head up, keep making plays, keep going.”
Sheppard bounced back to make several key plays. But Maryland could not avoid a second straight loss, its first to a team with a worse record. Illinois, previously winless in the Big Ten, upset Maryland and sent it into the bye week with an acrid taste that masked many of the positive feelings built through the first six weeks of the season.
The midseason break should help the Terps rest and perhaps get multiple starters back healthy, including Sheppard’s defensive partner, cornerback Tarheeb Still.
For Maryland to recapture its early-season form, the Terps will need to embody the resilience Sheppard showed after he was beaten. And they will need something every cornerback must possess: a short memory.
Sheppard displayed it on the series after the touchdown. Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer threw over the middle and the corner drove hard on the pass, causing a collision that sent the ball high into the air for one of the easiest interceptions of Glen Miller’s life.
Altmyer tested Sheppard again in the third quarter with a deep corner pass to Isaiah Williams. Sheppard, playing in the slot, arrived just after the ball did and it initially looked like Williams had corralled his second touchdown of the day.
But Sheppard raised his right arm toward his foe’s hands, breaking the receiver’s grip. The two, entwined, fell to the ground — as did the ball for a harmless incompletion. Hyppolite recalled telling the corner that the ball would find him again after that initial touchdown, offering opportunities for redemption.
“When it did, he made those plays,” Hyppolite said.
The Terps, like Hyppolite said of himself and Sheppard, are imperfect. Maryland’s defense allowed Illinois to have a success rate in the 90th percentile and the Terps’ offense didn’t cross 100 rushing yards against a Fighting Illini defense that’s given up at least 150 yards in five of its other six games.
Special teams also struggled: Illinois mustered its longest punt and kickoff returns of the season against the Terps.
Coach Michael Locksley has constantly emphasized the importance of the “middle eight” — the last four minutes of the first half and the first four of the second — as an opportunity to generate scoring swings. Maryland had a chance to score late in the second quarter but fumbled it away.
Illinois marched down the field for to close out the half with a touchdown and scored another about four and a half minutes into the third quarter — a 14-point run in a game it eventually won by three.
Any goals Maryland had of winning the Big Ten were overly ambitious. But the Terps had a readymade path in a top-heavy conference to beat a host of subpar opponents, lose to the nation’s elite and finish with a double-digit win season for the first time since 2003.
They let hopes of securing bowl eligibility at the earliest point in the season since 2001 wither away.
“All of our goals are still ahead of us,” Locksley said, “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.”
Now, they get time to rest and ruminate. That period, and how they use it, will determine their response to the biggest disappointment of the season and ultimately define the rest of it.
Locksley said the team would use the bye week to evaluate themselves.
”We’ll also take a look at all the things we do offensively, defensively, special teams, quality control, and get this thing back on track and back in rhythm,” he said.