CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema didn’t have to deviate too far from some of the same postgame messaging following Friday’s late-night loss to Maryland. The same theme the previous two weeks came through once again.
Joseph Petrino’s game-winning, 32-yard field goal for the Terrapins as time expired turned what was increasingly looking like another Big Ten victory for the Illini into a third straight loss. Maryland ended up sneaking away from Memorial Stadium just before midnight on Friday with a 20-17 win in front of an announced crowd of 37,168.
The losses to Texas San Antonio, Virginia and now Maryland were all different in some ways.
Letting Friday’s game slip away against the Terrapins from what was looking increasingly like a 2-0 start to Big Ten play just added another chapter to the learning experience — and what now might be looking like a rebuild in Bielema’s first year in charge of the Illini (1-3, 1-1 Big Ten).
“For us to get to a point where we are winning games, they have to smell it, touch it, see it — whatever you want to say,” the first-year Illinois coach said. “They have to be able to do that. Once that happens, I think things will turn to a very positive way. But until that happens, we are going to continue to have failure in key moments, which is something we can’t have.”
Those failures in key moments piled up late in Friday’s game. The Illinois defense — even with a better showing than the previous two weeks — couldn’t stop Maryland on either the game-tying or game-winning drives in the final five minutes with Illinois nursing a 17-10 lead against the Terrapins (3-0, 1-0). And the Illinois offense couldn’t move the ball. The run game dried up after Chase Brown and Josh McCray went out with injuries, and quarterback Brandon Peters had nothing going through the air at the end of the game.
“We were prepared for a four-quarter game, and it became just that,” said Mike Locksley, Maryland’s coach who knows what it’s like to win at Memorial Stadium since he was the offensive coordinator on the 2007 Illini team that went to the Rose Bowl. “A Big Ten road win is tough to come by. Our guys had every reason to kind of cash it in when things didn’t bounce our way.
“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 handled adversity? (Friday), we got the second question answered. I was really proud of the way they fought and overcame a ton of mistakes on our part. The ball didn’t seem to bounce our way (Friday), but when we needed to make plays on offense, defense and special teams, all three phases made the plays, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
While Maryland will return to nonconference play Sept. 25 against Kent State, Illinois is back in a rather familiar situation. The Illini have to put the loss to the Terrapins behind them and turn their focus to next week and a road trip to Purdue. That’s been the case now three times this season and, for a rather veteran roster, a common occurrence during their careers.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Illinois running back Reggie Love III said. “We feel like we definitely could’ve won that game. There’s things that everybody could’ve did better, including myself, to go out there and win the game. Just a tough pill to swallow, but we’ve got to move on to next week.
“Turnovers, mental errors and penalties, that hurt us. We had one ball security issue that could’ve actually led to a turnover, but it kind of blessed us with a touchdown. Just going out every week and doing our own job, that’s all we can do.”
Bielema’s long-stated goal is turning Illinois into a consistent winner. He’s been open with the fact the Illini will take some lumps along the way. So far, they’ve taken three. In a row.
But Bielema said he feels his team understands the process.
“Getting somewhere you haven’t gone before, you’ve got to do something different you haven’t done before,” Illinois wide receiver Casey Washington said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. None of us want to be in this position right now, but everything lines up for a reason. We can’t complain about our situation. We’re here. This is the situation that we were dealt. We’ve just got to figure it out and figure out how to come out on top.”
The goal is to do that without letting these losses linger. The Illini’s focus can’t be on next week and the Boilermakers if they’re dwelling on a clear-cut missed opportunity against Maryland. Again, Illinois has some experts in that field.
“The more you dwell on the game that you lost, it can mess you up in the long run,” veteran defensive lineman Jamal Woods said. “Coach was preaching this week about adversity. There’s going to be some adversity. We’ve got to take it and run with it. We’ve got to flip the script. Just come out and practice harder than we ever have and lock in to what the coaches want us to do.”