COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Expect the unexpected.
That may be the only way to explain the Illini’s last three games. Coming off ugly blowout losses to Purdue and Nebraska, Illinois — 13.5-point underdogs — stormed into College Park on Saturday afternoon looking to change the narrative against a 5-1 Maryland team.
After three quarters, head coach Bret Bielema’s guys were clinging to a 24-21 lead. Maryland tied the game with under two minutes to go, but a big 29-yard throw from Luke Altmyer to Casey Washington put Illinois (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) in position to win. The only thing left to do was to sail the ball through the uprights.
Caleb Griffin’s 43-yard field goal was good as time expired, and the Illini prevailed in dramatic fashion with their first Big Ten win, 27-24.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Per usual, the Illini started the game off strong, taking their first drive into opposing territory for a sixth time in seven games. However, instead of stalling out, Altmyer flipped the script in a big way with a 44-yard passing touchdown to Pat Bryant — his third touchdown in as many games.
While the Maryland (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) offense has rivaled the best in the Big Ten, its defense was tied for the most takeaways in the conference (12) heading into Saturday’s matchup. This stat spelled nightmares for this turnover-ridden Illinois offense, but Maryland only forced one the entire game.
Altmyer’s conference-worst ninth interception in the first quarter was the lone turnover, and although it gave Maryland momentum to tie the game and later take the 14-7 lead, Terrapins wide receiver Kaden Prather then returned the favor with a fumble deep in Illinois territory.
The lack of additional mistakes allowed the Illini to build strong offensive drives, and before long, a potential double-digit lead for Maryland turned into a 24-14 Illinois lead late in the third quarter.
Another big reason for these strong drives was the run game. Kaden Feagin responded after the team’s season-low 21 rushing yards last weekend, rushing for 85 yards and a touchdown (first of his career). Feagin left the game on the Illini’s final drive with an apparent shoulder injury.
Casey Washington hauled in the game-changing catch on the very next play.
Casey Washington on the final drive in the fourth quarter. pic.twitter.com/ybT1tQnlVx— Illinois Football Focus (@IlliniFB) October 14, 2023
Altmyer stepped up in a big way as well. The sophomore threw for 206 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but nothing was bigger than his performance on the final drive.
His throw to Washington didn’t get the Illini into field goal range, but a 12-yard pass to Aidan Laughery the next play followed by a big conversion with Altmyer’s legs set them up for the field goal as time expired.
Tagovailoa threw for 266 yards and 2 touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough to complete the comeback. The Illinois defense — last in the Big Ten — forced five Maryland punts, and in Keith Randolph’s absence, Seth Coleman picked up the slack with three sacks on Tagovailoa.
The theme thus far this season for the Illinois offense has been its inability to put a complete game together. It continued on Saturday, but despite struggling significantly in the fourth quarter with a trio of three-and-outs, Aaron Henry’s defense stepped up big, only allowing three points total in the ensuing drives.
The defensive reliability allowed the offense enough time to right the ship, scoring as time expired and getting what could be the program’s most impressive win in the past two seasons.
In a year where everything seemed to be going wrong, this win couldn’t have come at a more unexpected (or opportune) time for Illinois. On the other hand, Maryland watched its Big Ten East title hopes take a major hit after losing its second straight game.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
MOMENTUM SHIFTS: Despite the quick Illinois start, Maryland took a 14-7 lead late into the first half and was looking to add more. Deep in Illini territory, linebacker Dylan Rosiek forced his third fumble of the season, and the recovery allowed the offense to drive down the field and tie the game heading into half.
KICKOFFS: Entering the second half tied at 14, Maryland attempted to turn the tides with an onside kick, but Illinois recovered and proceeded to drive down the field and take a 21-14 lead.
SPECIAL TEAMS: After having an abysmal special teams performance against Nebraska last weekend, Illinois made massive improvements on Saturday. Two big punt returns by Isaiah Williams (55 total return yards) and a 43-yard kick return by Kenari Wilcher set the Illini up with much better field position.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
About damn time.
We’re gonna show it to you again. Take a swim, Griffin.
A complete 180 from last weekend.
The Maryland O-line focused on Johnny Newton all game, and Coleman took advantage.
Having mixed emotions about this one.
Ice in his veins.
TWEET OF THE GAME
Ridiculous this team lost to Purdue AND Nebraska— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) October 14, 2023
It’s Homecoming in Champaign.
With newfound momentum, the Illini welcome the Badgers to town next Saturday. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m.