Maryland football has some newness to consider in Big Ten opener

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

For head coach Mike Locksley, this year’s visit to Champaign, Illinois reminds him of a time that’s sacred.

From 2005-08 as an offensive coordinator at Illinois, Locksley cut his teeth as an offensive mind under head coach Ron Zook (who served from 2005-11) and used his experience to springboard his coaching career with his first head coaching job at New Mexico. Illinois was also where Locksley raised his kids, as two of his sons graduated high school in the state.

“[Illinois is] obviously a place, probably other than Maryland, that for me and my family is a special place,” Locksley said of his return to Illinois.

For the Terps, Friday’s matchup will be a foreign experience. It will be the first time the program has visited Memorial Stadium at Illinois and some athletes’ first true taste of college football on the road.

But the Fighting Illini have their own share of unfamiliarity to navigate. It’s head coach Bret Bielema’s first year at the helm of the program and his struggles to forge a new brand of winning at Champaign have culminated in a 1-2 start to the season. Despite featuring a roster loaded with super senior talent, Bielema has failed to capture any notable production from the fifth and sixth year returners. 

The experienced and deep defensive line has been largely a non-factor throughout Illinois’ two-game skid. Seasoned, big-time contributors like defensive back Tony Adams and linebacker Jake Hansen haven’t been able to replicate the production they enjoyed under the tutelage of Lovie Smith, Bielema’s predecessor. Both players and a bevy of other talents have been generally pushed aside by the likes of Virginia and UTSA. 

The defense overall has conceded 700 yards passing and well over 300 yards rushing all while allowing 79 points in the past two weeks, prompting some concern for a squad that was touted for its defensive experience and potential heading into the season.

And in a more unlucky turn of events, starting quarterback Brandon Peters, also a sixth-year senior, has just four attempts on the season after suffering an injury in the first quarter of the season opener. Peters, however, is expected to start against Maryland on Friday. 

Against an uncharacteristic defense, Maryland’s blossoming offense has a chance to further improve morale and confidently wade through unfamiliar territory to jump to a 3-0 start. Tagovailoa and receiver Dontay Demus Jr. will have a chance to continue their stretch of dominance for the third week in a row. 

The running game that features three viable tailbacks in Peny Boone, Isaiah Jacobs and Tayon Fleet-Davis will have a chance to continue to progress. And the uncertainty on Peter’s readiness offers some optimism that Maryland’s defense has a chance to offer some more of the strong production it’s enjoyed across the board.

In spite of the newness of this Big Ten opener, the conditions of this contest provide Maryland a modest welcome to Big Ten football in 2021 before the established heavy-hitters present more weighty challenges for the Terps.

“Obviously, as a team we’re excited to be 2-0,” Locksley said. “It’s a Big Ten opener, national TV audience … it should be a great crowd and we’re excited about the opportunity.”

As Maryland deals with the newness of life on the road, with fans and the like, it will have the fortune of facing a team struggling to capture the novelty of considerable success. 

“I tell [the younger athletes] every game; ‘stay poised, take control whenever you’re out there on the field, take your opportunities and make the play that you need to make,’” said sophomore linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II. “It’s nothing different than playing at home … it’s still the same routine.”

Week Three’s contest will kick off at 9 pm EST on Friday and air on FS1.