As Joseph Petrino’s game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights in Champaign, Illinois, College Park breathed a collective sigh of relief.
In the stadium, Maryland was tense despite confidence in Petrino.
“I don’t know why I was nervous, ‘cause I knew he was going to make it,” Terps cornerback Tarheeb Still said. “It’s just anticipation.”
1 a.m. was fast-approaching on the East Coast as Maryland rallied around its kicker in celebration, and the undefeated Terps narrowly escaped what had become something of a crux for them the past few years: an unexpected loss in game three.
Maryland hadn’t been 3-0 since 2016, despite starting 2-0 for three straight years from 2017 to 2019. Game three losses to eventually-undefeated UCF in 2017, and back-to-back stumbles against Temple in 2018 and 2019 seemed to derail promising starts.
What it took for the Terps to break their habit was one of the most perplexing games they’ve played in years.
A 20-17 nail-biter against a struggling Illinois squad wouldn’t typically scream progress — but in this case, Maryland slogged through a slow start and impactful mistakes and still came away with a crucial win it wouldn’t have always clinched.
“When we started this year, we said we had two questions to get answered: Would we be a team that played with great discipline this year, and would we be a team that would be able to handle adversity?” coach Mike Locksley said. “Today, we got the second question answered.”
There were early signs the Terps were not going to establish the same offensive dominance they had in their previous two matchups.
Maryland scored on its first two drives against both West Virginia and Howard. But against the Fighting Illini, Taulia Tagovailoa and his unit were quickly back off the field, unable to get into opposing territory.
Getting down the field would continue to be a tough ask for the Terps, only making it into Illinois territory twice in the first half, resulting in Petrino’s first two field goal attempts.
Maryland’s offense eventually found its stride, with Tagovailoa racking up a quiet 350 yards — and still refusing to throw an interception.
The Terps’ offense then began making a few more grandiose mistakes than usual, with Tayon Fleet-Davis and Peny Boone fumbling on back-to-back drives.
But Maryland lauds itself on being able to handle any situation, and it found its way back to what its players learn in practice.
“Those guys did not flinch or do anything,” Tagovailoa said. “They just continued to stay back in neutral.”
The defense shared their own strain, namely losing personnel — sometimes unnecessarily.
The Terps entered Memorial Stadium already down three defensive starters since the beginning of the year. Linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay and cornerback Deonte Banks both suffered injuries that require surgery, while defensive tackle Mosiah Nasili-Kite suffered a setback with a foot injury. Defensive lineman Ami Finau was also in and out of the game, getting banged up a few times.
It didn’t take long for Maryland to lose Lavonte Gater for the game on an egregious targeting penalty. Jordan Mosley nearly had one of his own on a tough shot to an Illini receiver, but the referees kept their flags to themselves.
Even so, the rest of the defensive unit shined. Nick Cross continued to impress with a team-leading seven tackles, one interception and three pass breakups.
The pass rush was certainly not going to be stopped, even without two of its go-tos available. Sam Okuayinonu, Greg Rose and Durell Nchami each sacked Brandon Peters twice.
“One, it shows that the coaches do a good job of preparing guys to play and then two, the guys are really brought in to what we gotta do,” Still said. “We didn’t really miss a beat.”
Despite Petrino knocking in the winner, it was the defense that delivered the game for the Terps. Going into the season, it was Tagovailoa and Maryland’s stacked receiving corps that looked to be the X-factor. But three weeks in, the defense is winning games.
Still, 2021 has brought a new season and a new Terps team. Regardless of the quagmire that was Friday night, Maryland stands 3-0.
And the team knows what it’s doing isn’t the same old song and dance.
“I feel like guys just want it a lot,” Still said. “It shows that guys are tired of being … average. They want more for themselves, they want more for the program.”