Behind enemy lines: Illinois

Maryland football returns to College Park for their homecoming game this weekend with Illinois (2-4, 0-3) next on the schedule. The Terps will look to pick up their third consecutive win over the Illini as they clinch bowl eligibility for the third consecutive season, marking the first time the program has done so in 20 years. So what needs to happen for Maryland to pick up the bounceback win heading into the bye? To learn more, we spoke with Bob Asmussen, the Illinois football beat writer for the Champaign News-Gazette.

IBG: Illinois has been a bit of a disappointment this year after a strong 2022 season. What’s been the biggest reason for the Illini struggling to find more consistency?

It really comes down to one main issue on each side of the ball. Offensively, the line has been a mess. Injuries have been part of the problem, but the unit also has been its own worst enemy with untimely penalties.  Stuff that shouldn’t happen with three starters back. Defensively, the loss of the three draft picks in the secondary changed the way the unit plays. A year ago, knowing Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown and Quan Martin could cover up mistakes made in front of them, the linemen and linebackers played with great freedom.

That isn’t happening now. When someone misses an assignment now, the defense is being exploited. I think the change in coordinator hurt the defense. Aaron Henry is going to be good, but it is his first time calling plays. Ryan Walters, now the head coach at Purdue, knew what buttons to push.

IBG: Maryland already matched up against Marvin Harrison Jr. last week, and it won’t get any easier this week with Isaiah Williams headed to College Park. What’s made him a dynamic weapon for the offense? Is there another name for Maryland fans to keep an eye on?

To me, Isaiah Williams’ time as a quarterback makes him a much better receiver. He understands what Luke Altmyer is seeing and he has a good feel for the secondary too. One of his greatest assets is his work ethic.

His teammates admire that he is never satisfied and always trying to get better. He is a great guy who will be a successful pro. My guess is Kaden Feagin will start at running back, I have covered the team 34 years and he is the biggest running back (6-foot-3, 250) pounds I have seen at Illinois. And he isn’t a big slug. He can move really well. I won’t be surprised if he has a big game, going over 100 yards on the ground, if he gets a little help from the line.

IBG: Arguably no defensive lineman in the country has been better at creating havoc in the trenches than Jer’Zhan Newton, a former Maryland verbal. How would you assess the Illini front seven through the first half of the season?

Johnny is playing at an All-American level. He is being double and triple-teamed and still making an impact. Keith Randolph, his running mate at tackle, has also been solid. The disappointment is at outside linebacker, which is really an end. Those guys aren’t having the same impact as a year ago. Not sure what is wrong. There have been some injuries, but everyone has those. At inside linebacker, Tarique Barnes has missed time and that has hurt. Kenenna Odeluga and Dylan Rosiek are solid inside.

IBG: For Illinois to win, they need to…

Take care of the ball. Turnovers have been an issue in the losses. And even more important, score touchdowns when it gets in the red zone. Far too many empty trips, which is a killer when the defense is strugglng too.

Score prediction for Maryland vs. Illinois

Maryland 38. Illinois 21.

Happy homecoming for the Terrapins and one loss closer to bowl ineligibility for Illinois.

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