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What Needs to Happen: Illinois at Maryland

What can the Illini do to pull off an upset (or least stay competitive) at Maryland?

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Both Maryland and Illinois are reeling after getting trounced at Iowa and at Wisconsin, respectively. Despite last week’s showing against Iowa, Maryland has looked impressive in wins over Texas and Minnesota, and looked competent at times in a loss to Michigan. In other words, Maryland, who is ranked 63rd in S&P, has looked somewhat more competent than Illinois, who is currently ranked 105th in S&P. It goes without saying that only a stellar effort from the Illini — the type of effort they have yet to put together for 4 quarters — will produce a victory in College Park.

So, what exactly do the Illini have to do win — or at least stay competitive?

EYE DISCIPLINE ON DEFENSE

Interim Maryland head coach Matt Canada has been a hot name in offensive coordinator circles. His offenses at Wisconsin, NC State and Pitt lit up scoreboards on a weekly basis. In 2017, he took what appeared to be a step up when he became offensive coordinator at LSU. Canada found the Bayou to be a bad fit for his personality and his style of offense so he took his playbook to Maryland as its offensive coordinator. After a tumultuous off-season that ended with Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin getting suspended indefinitely, Canada was named interim head coach of the Terps. Chaos and scandal can be a ladder and Matt Canada is trying to climb that ladder to being named permanent head coach at Maryland.

His better known performances as offensive coordinator were Wisconsin’s 70-31 massacre of Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten Championship and Pitt’s 43-42 upset at Clemson in 2016. In these match-ups — and in the match-ups where Maryland has been successful so far this season — Canada has been able to confuse defenses with a dizzying array of pre-snap shifts and pre-snap motions. With the shifts and motions, Canada mixes in the jet sweep to create a great deal of pre-snap stress for defenses.

Here we see Canada deploying the jet sweep successfully in Maryland’s win over Texas

Here we see the jet sweep again later in the game against Texas:

In the Terps win against Minnesota, we see Canada using motion and the threat of the jet sweep to confuse the Gopher’s linebackers and create a massive hole for running back Anthony McFarland Jr.:

If the motions and shifts are confusing the Illini defense, then Canada will keep going back to the well until the defense figures it out. Therefore, eye discipline before the snap will be essential for the Illini to keep the Maryland offense in check.

UNLEASH RIVERS

The offense flows better with freshman MJ Rivers. He is more proficient in the pass game and he makes better reads in the run game than AJ Bush. The time has come to hand over the reigns of the offense to Rivers and truly build for the future.

With the season headed toward a death spiral, whatever arguments existed for playing AJ Bush, a grad transfer senior, are now out the window. What’s more, Rivers, the freshman with exponential room for growth, is better at running Rod Smith’s offense than AJ Bush, the senior with limited upside.

Continuing to force AJ Bush down the throat of this offense is only going to distance Lovie from those in the Illini fanbase that still believe in him. If Lovie wants to completely lose Illini fans, then by all means, keep playing AJ Bush. If he’s serious about the rebuild, then play MJ Rivers. It’s that simple.

PLAY WITH DESPERATION

The time is here for Illini to empty out the playbook and try to salvage this season with a win at Maryland. Fake Punts...Onside Kicks...flee flickers...stomping on Maryland’s logo at midfield...whatever it takes, Illinois needs to pull out all the stops and play with the fire of a thousand suns.

A win or competitive loss will help bolster what Lovie is trying to build in Champaign, but another bad loss will make those hot seat whispers grow with furious intensity.

Illini fans see what Jeff Brohm is doing at Purdue. They see how far this football program is from competing with Iowa and Wisconsin. Another dull, lifeless performance from the Illini and the seat will start to get hot.

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