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Illinois Went Full Illinois

This game was stupid, fun, and stupid fun. Until it wasn’t.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois Fighting Illini (1-3) squared off with the Maryland Terrapins (3-0) in a rare Friday night primetime Big Ten matchup. Expectations were low as the Illini delivered a dud against Virginia the previous week, and Maryland had put up impressive offensive numbers early in the season.

Trying to “debrief” this game turned out to be a very difficult endeavor. The first half was avert-your-eyes bad, the first 25 minutes of second half was can’t-look-away good, and the final five minutes were laugh-to-mask-the-pain terrible.

First off, I want to dish out the compliments. The “Block I” was filled with excited orange-and-blue-clad Illinois students Friday night. They’ve come out to support this team, and you have to love them for that, even when the on-field product has been less than stellar. It’s always more compelling when students & fans are invested.

It was also great to see a spirited effort by the Illini defense. It’s quite apparent there was a lot of focus on the defensive gameplan — a coaching staff making adjustments?! That’s allowed?! — and Illinois kept an explosive Maryland team at bay for much of the opening half. But the Terps’ opening drive of the second half and penultimate series of the game demonstrated why we were nervous about trusting Ryan Walters’ defense in the first place. Maryland cruised down the field with little resistance, scoring touchdowns on each of those possessions. Friday night was still a vast improvement, however — you really couldn’t have hoped for the Illini defense to perform much better than they did.

But it was mostly the same ol’, same ol’ dreck from the offense — that’s now four straight games without scoring in the first quarter. Other than a big gain on a somewhat-busted pass play to Josh McCray, a dart to Isaiah Williams, and a screen pass with some fancy footwork along the boundary by Chase Brown, there was barely anything worth noting in the first half. Brandon Peters went 6-for-17 in the first half in his return from injury. BP wasn’t much better in the second, finishing 10-of-26 for 185 yards and an interception. And super senior QBs should know not to hold on the ball too long, not to take a sack, and not to throw the ball to YOUR GODDAMN CENTER.

In fact, this play was Illinois’ best of the night:

Naturally, our top two (remaining) running backs got injured during the game — it’s Illinois, after all! — and we saw a flurry of foibles & turnovers, Blake Hayes punting magic, and baffling penalties committed by both squads.

This contest was entertaining as hell...until about the last five minutes, when the moment we dreaded — but inevitably expected as Illini fans — manifested itself.

I literally said to my wife, who boldly and willingly sat next to me the ENTIRE game, “[Illinois] needs a touchdown to win this game.”

I was initially encouraged by the fact that Bret Bielema was trying to bleed the clock. But with the ball in PLUS territory in the final 4+ minutes, with your team LEADING, with ONE YARD needed for a first down, Bielema decided to punt it back to Maryland. It was a wimpy move from a coach that espouses toughness. We know the final result.

Even with an adequate defense, I want the ball in my offense’s hands. I don’t want to count on someone else; I want to be the master of my fate. Make them stop you...even when your quarterback is as terrible as Peters was against the Terps. More often than not, teams lose when “playing not to lose.”

As far as recent frustrating losses go, this one should be pretty high on the list. It’s worse than Nebraska 2019 because the Illini shouldn’t have been within 28 points of the Huskers that night. More aggravating than EMU? Probably not. More embarrassing than 63-0? Certainly not. But it still stings. And there’s no end in sight.