This weekend, the Illini face off with Maryland. In all their respective years of existence, these two programs have never faced off. Now, in 2018, fans get the powerhouse matchup they have been salivating for.
Thanks! We’ll put these answers on the internet later today. Here’s what I’ve got for you:
TCR: Illinois fans are fully aware of how a toxic environment can impact a program. The Tim Beckman stain is something that still permeates around Champaign. How big of a distraction has the tragedy surrounding Jordan McNair and the reported toxic culture been for this program? Granted, the well being of the student athletes takes center stage, as it should, but has this season been lost due to DJ Durkin’s poor handling of this team?
Thomas Kendziora: There was definitely a worry that all the fallout surrounding the program would fracture the team and make this a lost season. That hasn’t happened. Maryland’s players have rallied around each other and remained focused on football as much as anyone can hope for. The Terps are 4-3 and have equaled their win total from last season. The coaching situation, with Matt Canada serving as interim head coach and offensive coordinator simultaneously and the whole defensive staff collaborating with each other, is less than ideal, and it’s lasted for longer than anyone wanted. But Maryland has done a good job of handling everything since the season started.
TCR: Maryland, like Illinois, has had difficulty passing the ball in 2018. Is this due to lack of talent under center, lack of protection, or lack of viable receivers?
TK: Honestly, I don’t think it’s any of those things. The quarterbacks are talented—starter Kasim Hill was a four-star recruit, while Tyrrell Pigrome is a game-changer with his legs—but haven’t been productive since the first game of the season. The offensive line returns all five starters from last year. There isn’t an ace wide receiver like DJ Moore was last year, but there are certainly playmakers at the position. It’s been a puzzling season for Hill, who looked like the future of the program when he played last season (he tore his ACL in the third game). But he’s shown flashes, and Maryland will need more consistency from him going forward.
TCR: Ty Johnson, Anthony McFarland, and Tayon Fleet-Davis have been a three headed monster for the Maryland rushing attack, similar to the multi back system Illinois utilizes. Out of those three, who is most vital to the success of Maryland?
TK: I’d say Johnson, who’s the senior leader in the backfield and the most explosive member of the bunch. During a three-game stretch, he had an 81-yard run, 98-yard kick return and 65-yard run for touchdowns. He’s probably the most boom-or-bust of the group, but his breakaway speed makes him a threat at all times. McFarland is a little more elusive and Fleet-Davis is the bruiser of the bunch, so it’s certainly a strong mix.
TCR: Joseph Petrino has been automatic this season. If the game comes down to kicking, how to do you like the matchup of McLaughlin and Petrino, possibly two of the best kickers in the Big Ten?
TK: It’s honestly really hard to say. Petrino hasn’t missed a kick, but he’s also only attempted five field goals all season, with none being longer than 39 yards. I think the senior kicker still gets the advantage by default, but I’m also confident that Petrino will become one of the best kickers in the conference before all is said and done.
TCR: Maryland opened 2018 with a huge upset win over Texas. How as a fan did you feel following that win with all the issues currently facing your program?
TK: I actually covered that game, and it was one of the craziest afternoons I’ve ever had at work. The game started at noon, and was already taking a long time when a thunderstorm rolled in at the start of the fourth quarter. Everyone retreated to the concourse. The marching band went around playing the fight song. There was a leak in the press box. The game resumed after an hour and a half and ended around 5:30.
It was certainly an exciting time to be a fan. People had reason to be proud of their school after everything that had happened. Campus was as happy as I’ve seen it when I got back to College Park. And now the whole thing is funnier because Texas still hasn’t lost since.
TCR: Who wins Saturday and why?
TK: I think this is Maryland’s game to lose. The Terps’ rushing attack will be tough for Illinois to stop, and the defense has improved seemingly every game. Maryland followed its first two losses with wins, and that *should* be the case again.
For vintage inspired, high quality, and well-designed University of Illinois apparel, check out Fourth and Kirby, and look for the TCR Collection while you’re at it!