Five Minutes From Hell Dooms Illini in Crushing Loss

Maryland managed to outscore Illinois 10-0 in less than five minutes during consecutive game-tying and game-winning drives to escape with a 20-17 victory.

By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst

September 18, 2021

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Four minutes and 50 seconds.

This is the amount of time Illinois head coach Bret Bielema and basically everybody in the Illini locker room would certainly like to have back.

Maryland managed to outscore Illinois 10-0 in that period of time as the Terrapins piled up 118 yards in consecutive game-tying and game-winning drives to escape Memorial Stadium with a 20-17 victory Friday night.

“Overall, Illinois played a decent football game before the final four minutes,” Illinois football color analyst Martin O’Donnell said in the WDWS post-game show.

And O’Donnell’s words, as he saw his two most important coaches from when he wore an Illini jersey (Maryland head coach Mike Locksley and Maryland assistant coach Ron Zook) walk away from Memorial Stadium with a come-from-behind victory, end up being extremely prophetic on a night where the Illini were easily five minutes from its first 2-0 start in the Big Ten since 2011.

Illinois (1-3, 1-1 in Big Ten Conference) managed just 44 total yards in the final quarter of a game that Bielema will know should’ve been his second win with the Illini program.

“It's a tough pill to swallow. We feel like we definitely could've won that game. There's things that everybody could have done better, including myself, to go out there and win the game,” Illinois tailback Reggie Love said. “Definitely a tough pill to swallow but we gotta move on to next week."

From the moment that Blake Hayes punted to the ball on a fourth-and-one from near midfield with four minutes and 50 seconds remaining on the clock, Maryland (3-0, 1-0 in Big Ten) assumed all of the momentum in a football game that was seemingly being asked to be won by the home team.

“We had every chance like I said to quit but I never felt that they panicked or that they looked at the scoreboard and that's the way we have to play,” Locksley said following a win in his first return to Champaign in over a decade.

In the final drive during a tie game that started with two minutes and 13 seconds left, Illinois managed to go backwards 28 yards in a possession where they had three consecutive plays that resulted in three consecutive sacks but Illini quarterback Brandon Peters, who finished 10 of 26 for 185 yards, found a wide open Blake Jeresaty in the middle of the field. The only problem is Jeresaty is the center who snapped Peters the football all evening, making it an intentional grounding penalty.

“I told our coaches let's go win this game, not play for a tie but let's win this game,” Bielema said. “It's important for us as a program to try and go win games and not just play in them, and that's why we approached things a certain way. We can't take lost yardages and penalties, and both of those happened on that last series that put us in a hole.”

Following his third straight loss at Illinois, Bielema refused to acknowledge the idea that not going for that fourth-and-1 nor the offensive play-calling of power runs with backup tailback Reggie Love were part of a conservative plan to get the Illini to overtime.

“(Illinois offensive coordinator) Tony (Petersen) wasn’t trying to be conservative,” Bielema said. “We saw Josh go for a pretty significant run that gave him a touchdown on those same plays. That same thinking went into those same plays. If it was conservative in your mind, that’s your opinion but it wasn’t designed to be that way and definitely wasn’t the results we wanted. But it wasn’t anybody who got in there and said ‘be conservative’ in fact, it was the exact opposite.”

Meanwhile, Bielema, who has been talking for the last three weeks with his team and media about avoiding ways to lose football games, now realizes more than ever that finding ways to aggressively win games in the critical moments is a learning lesson as well.

“One that is definitely a learning experience for us, and again 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, they have to be able to do that,” Bielema said. “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.”

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