THREE BIG STORYLINES
Hansen approaching history
Jake Hansen ripping the ball out of Virginia wide receiver Demick Starling’s hands for a forced (and recovered) fumble wasn’t exactly a surprise. It’s what the Illinois linebacker does. Hansen is just one forced fumble away from tying Simeon Rice’s program record of 13. Hansen’s dozen also puts him in rather impressive company, as only six other players nationally have forced more since 2000. Former Buffalo star Khalil Mack tops the list with 16, and the fact former Wisconsin standout Chris Borland is on it with 14 is fitting.
“He just naturally found the ball all the time,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said of Borland, who he recruited to Wisconsin. “It didn’t matter if it was the run game, pass game. A lot of times a lot of people would be standing there, and he’d go whack the ball out. As soon as I got here when I put the film on, I literally said to myself when I saw Jake make play after play on the ball, ‘This is exactly what I saw with Chris.’”
Targeting tight ends
Luke Ford caught the first pass of the 2021 Illinois football season and turned that 19-yard reception into career-highs in receptions (three), yards (30) and touchdowns (one) in the Illini’s Week 0 win against Nebraska. The Carterville native and former four-star recruit has been targeted just twice in the passing game since and has two receptions for nine yards. While Daniel Barker picked up some targets against Texas San Antonio and Virginia and has eight catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns, Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen would still like to see his tight ends used more.
“We’re making an effort,” Petersen said. “You can’t always have a play and it’s guaranteed we’re getting the ball to the tight end, but it’s one of our high priorities to get the ball to both of those guys. They’re big targets right there. We haven’t gotten the ball to them as much as we need to the last two games.”
Illinois was close to fully vaccinated as a team heading into the season opener against Nebraska with only a few players — none of them on the two-deep — waiting to get their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Illini are now 100 percent vaccinated. That doesn’t mean Bielema and the Illinois coaches aren’t still stressing best practices to make sure the team stays healthy and is able to avoid some of the problems from a year ago in the thick of the pandemic. Practicing outside helps, and masking indoors is current university policy.
“I’ll ask a lot of our guys to just be very cautious when we’re outside of this,” Bielema said. “We still haven’t let parents back into our hotels when we’re on the road or when we’re at home games here. We’re going back to some of the same policies they’ve had in the past. I think our guys really have to be conscientious of it. To get everybody 100 percent vaccinated was a big step in the right direction, and then I think they’re being cautious about how they spend their time away from the game of football, as well.”
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Illinois secondary vs. Maryland wide receivers
This hasn’t been a good matchup for the Illini in the last two games. Texas San Antonio wide receiver Zakhari Franklin caught 10 passes for 155 yards and one touchdown two weeks ago. Last Saturday, Virginia had four different receivers — and one tight end leading the way — finish with at least 50 yards receiving. Maryland’s duo of Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett is a problem. Both have proven to be big-play threats through two games, with Demus averaging 21.8 yards per reception and Jarrett at 15.8. An Illinois secondary that’s been beat both on quick hitters and deep passes has another challenging game ahead against a Maryland offense that has been more than comfortable slinging it with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa.
Brandon Peters vs. Maryland defense
Chase Brown showed against Virginia he can be a target out of the backfield in the Illinois passing game. Isaiah Williams leads the Illini in receiving and has done most of his damage on underneath routes that put him in space and let his athleticism shine through. The Illinois offense still needs more of a spark. The room for growth is the vertical passing game, which was basically nonexistent with Art Sitkowski at the helm save for his completions to Deuce Spann. The vertical passing game hasn’t always been Brandon Peters’ strength — not with a career average of 6.5 yards per attempt — but the minuscule sample size from his 13 snaps against Nebraska is trending more in that direction at 8.8 yards per attempt.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
Illinois remains tied for first in the Big Ten West with Iowa despite losses the last two weeks. The Week 0 win against Nebraska still looms large as a strong start to conference play. It’s been a decade since the Illini opened a season with consecutive Big Ten wins, though. The last came in 2011 as Illinois beat Northwestern 38-35 and Indiana 41-20 in the first two Big Ten opportunities as part of a 6-0 start to the season. The 2007 team also started Big Ten play 2-0 in addition to the 1994 and 1991 teams in the last three decades.
ILLINOIS WILL WIN IF …
… Almost nothing about what it did last Saturday at Virginia is repeated. The Illini can’t afford to give up as many chunk plays as the Cavaliers managed and have to figure out a way to get traction offensively before the opening drive of the second half. Consecutive losses to UTSA and Virginia have sapped Illinois of any momentum it had after beating Nebraska in the first game of the season. Another home Big Ten win against Maryland might inject some renewed life back into both the team and the fan base.
MARYLAND WILL WIN IF …
… Taulia Tagovailoa does what UTSA’s Frank Harris and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong did before him. Harris and Armstrong combined to complete 47 of 68 passes for 685 yards and six touchdowns against a porous Illinois defense. Tagovailoa could easily be the next. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Terps quarterback leads the Big Ten in completion percentage (76.2 percent) and QB rating (188.4) and ranks second in passing yards per game (303). All things that don’t bode well for the Illini.
Maryland 38, Illinois 21
It’s not a great matchup for Illinois. What Maryland has done well (throw the ball) is exactly what the Illini have been unable to stop. And the fact veteran Illinois players have reverted to some old bad habits — i.e. missed tackles, mental mistakes offensively and a rash of penalties, including multiple of the unsportsmanlike conduct variety against Virginia — is a cause for concern. The Terrapins have already proven they can handle themselves in big games with a season-opening win against West Virginia. Odds are they do it again in Champaign.