Despite coming off of road blowout losses last week, the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Maryland Terrapins are looking to turn the page towards a new week when they face one another for the first time in history. Illinois and Maryland have each been playing football since the 1890s, yet this 2018 matchup between the two Big Ten schools marks the first contest ever between the two sides.
Entering this game, the Terps stand at 4-3 with a recent 23-0 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Illini are 3-4 and have lost their last two games to the Purdue Boilermakers and the Wisconsin Badgers by a combined score of 95-27.
This week is a defining week for the Maryland football program in ways that have little to do with the game on Saturday. For the college football landscape nationally, it’s important to stay up-to-date on those conclusions and to remember the life and tragic loss of Maryland lineman Jordan McNair.
WHEN MARYLAND HAS THE BALL
Poor passing team. Great running team.
Simply put, Maryland is a great running team and sub-par passing team. Maryland is the worst passing team in the Big Ten. They have the fewest pass attempts and fewest pass yards of any team in the conference. Their completion percentage of 51.5 percent is second worst in the conference — only Rutgers at 49.6 percent is worse. At 110 passing yards per game, Maryland is one of the worst passing teams in all of Power 5 conference football.
When it comes to running the football, Maryland is a completely different story. They get it done behind three really good running backs in Ty Johnson, Anthony McFarland and Tayon Fleet-Davis. Those three all have a similar number of rush attempts: 58 for Johnson, 51 for McFarland and 48 for Fleet-Davis. They’ve combined for eight touchdowns, 1,101 rushing yards and an average of just under seven yards per rush attempt.
In the Big Ten, only Illinois, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin average more rush yards per game than Maryland. This is a team that tries to impose its will on the ground and is capable of getting large chunks of yards by grinding out games.
Maryland’s bread and butter of running the football is a matchup nightmare for the Illinois defense. Out of 129 FBS teams, Illinois ranks 116th in rush defense. Of Power 5 teams, only UCLA, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Oregon State are worse than the Illini are at stopping the run. The Illini give up an average of almost five yards per-rush, a disastrous figure that directly exposes the 2-deep safeties for the occasional long-ball pass down the field.
Statistically speaking, Maryland’s run-first offense should have a field day against the worst team in the Big Ten at stopping what Maryland does best.
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL
Feed Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein (if healthy)
Illinois and Maryland are similar in that they are excellent at running the ball, but the passing statistics leave much to be be desired. Reggie Corbin and Maryland’s Ty Johnson are two of the best in the Big Ten in average yards per rush attempt, both averaging just short of eight yards per rush.
One of the lone bright spots against Wisconsin was this incredible, Reggie Corbin 80-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter. Corbin is Illinois’ biggest threat offensively, and he’ll need to shoulder even more of a load against Maryland should Mike Epstein, who got hurt against Wisconsin, be unable to go or be under a limited snap count.
The Illini receivers have been decent at best, and the trio of Trenard Davis, Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green haven’t necessarily been helped by some shaky quarterback play all season long. To keep Maryland’s defense off-balance, Illini O-coordinator Rod Smith will likely try to develop some running back and wide receiver screens in the hopes of preventing the Terps from stacking the box against Reggie Corbin.
The Terps defense is led by Illini transfer Tre Watson. Watson’s been a total menace since he’s arrived in College Park: 54 tackles and three interceptions, one of which went for a touchdown against Minnesota a month ago. Darnell Savage Jr. is one of the most experienced cornerbacks in the Big Ten, and he already has four interceptions this season and eight total in his career thus far.
Byron Cowart, a former No. 1 overall recruit and Auburn Tigers transfer, anchors the Terps’ defensive front. Cowart has three sacks and often draws double teams down in the trenches and off the edges — he’s a capable DT even though he’s at his best playing off the edge. He’s a future NFL player and has really revived his career in his switch from the SEC to the Big Ten.
SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES
Ty Johnson is one of the best all-purpose players in the Big Ten, and he’s equally dangerous running the ball as he is a special teams returner. Johnson leads the Big Ten in kickoff return yardage.
Watch him go for 98 yards against Michigan a few weeks ago:
Against Purdue two weeks ago, the Illini did a solid job of keeping speedster/all-world athlete Rondale Moore from doing much of anything in the return game. Illinois will need to proceed with the same caution against Ty Johnson this week.
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