CHAMPAIGN — That priceless moment presented itself at Memorial Stadium late Friday night, but Bret Bielema’s unfortunates weren’t quite up to it in a last-second 20-17 home loss to Maryland.
It was the fourth quarter, and the Terrapins were paying the price for eight penalties and fumble misfortunes, trailing the opportunistic Illini, 17-10, with the clock becoming a factor.
Bielema’s gang and the announced crowd of 37,168 could practically taste a hard-earned victory as they punched the football past midfield, reaching fourth-and-1 at the Maryland 40-yard line with fewer than five minutes remaining in regulation.
Just one more yard, and critical minutes could be ticked off. And another five yards would bring the football within range of James McCourt’s game-clinching toe.
The choiceSo it’s fourth down in enemy territory, a mere 36 inches from increasing your winning odds to something over 90 percent. And it’s here that you ask yourself: What would Mike Locksley, Ron Zook and all those on the opposing sideline prefer?
That’s easy. They just want the football. They don’t care if it’s 60 yards from paydirt, or if it is 86 yards, which is what it turned out to be with Blake Hayes’ punt.
Oh, yes, Bielema considered it “possible fourth down territory” when Illinois marched over midfield. And he had a trick up his sleeve when Hayes darted under center in an attempt to draw the Terps offsides.
They didn’t jump, and it’s here that Illinois needed to call time and huddle, and recall the UI’s greatest single football moment in this century.
It came at Ohio State in 2007 when, leading the Buckeyes 28-21 and facing fourth-and-1 way back on their own 33, quarterback Juice Williams used the timeout to convince then-Illinois coach Zook that he could sneak for the needed yard. And he did. The top-ranked Buckeyes never got the ball back, as Illinois produced the greatest non-scoring, eight-minute march in school history.
The decisionUnderstand, Bielema did what most coaches would have done. His charges had held Maryland’s prolific offense to 10 points in 55 minutes. The Illini permitted just two third-down successes in 10 Maryland tries.
Furthermore, Bielema was without running back Chase Brown and pile-driving, 240-pound freshman Josh McCray (injured after gaining 60 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown run), and the coach expressed concern about “Maryland momentum” if the Terps made that fourth-down stop.
So he punted, which is in defiance of one rule held by the gamblers among us: When in doubt during these fun and games, do what your opponent least wants you to do. Make it your policy, your identity ... while understanding repercussions will come when you fail.
The ramificationsQuarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was brilliant in those devastating last five minutes. Illinois had no answer. In short order, the Terps ran and passed for 9, 8, 15, 3, 17, 0, 24 and 10 yards, the latter a touchdown reception by Tayon Fleet-Davis for the tying score.
With two minutes left to counterattack, Illinois backfired. Badly. Two sacks and a penalty, and Tagovailoa had the ball back, hitting Rakim Jarrett on a first-play, 26-yard strike to put Joseph Petrino in field-goal range. Petrino stepped up for a 32-yarder on the last play, spoiling an otherwise encouraging evening for the hosts.
In defeat, we look back on erratic aerial effort in Brandon Peters’ return, the Illini quarterback completing just 10 in 26 tries and suffering six sacks. Particularly distressing to Bielema was Peters’ overthrow interception on first down after Illinois outside linebacker Seth Coleman stole the ball on the Terps’ 25-yard line in the third quarter.
Also lost in the finish was the oddest touchdown thus far, Reggie Love breaking loose at the outset of the fourth quarter, fumbling near the sideline, and receiver Casey Washington scooping his bouncing fumble and darting 30 yards to score on a 63-yard play.
That was the break Illinois needed in shooting ahead, 17-10 ... but couldn’t take full advantage of.