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Maryland vs. Illinois Football Prediction and Preview

Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland Terrapins Football

Taulia Tagovailoa and the Terrapins look to improve to 3-0 when they take on the Fighting Illini in Champaign on Friday night

The Big Ten will kick off its Week 3 slate on Friday night when the Illinois Fighting Illini (1-2) host the Maryland Terrapins (2-0) in Champaign. This will be the Terps' first conference game of the season, while the Illini opened the season with a Big Ten win over Nebraska. Illinois has dropped its past two games, losing to UTSA at home and Virginia on the road, giving up 1,053 yards during that span. 

On the other side, Maryland has outscored its first two opponents 92-24. Given the Illini's issues on defense, will the Terps keep things rolling on the road or can the Illini right the ship?

Maryland at Illinois

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 17 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Maryland -8.5

When Maryland Has the Ball

Junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa leads all Big Ten QBs in both completion percentage (76.2) and passer rating (188.4). He also ranks second in touchdown passes (6) and completions (48) while sitting fourth in yards (606) and yards per attempt (9.6). He's guided this offense with precision, accuracy, and efficiency. 

Receivers Dontay Demus Jr. (12 rec., 261 yds., 2 TDs), and Rakim Jarrett (12, 189, 2) are the top targets in the passing game, while running back Tayon Fleet-Davis carries the load out of the backfield (26 att., 189 yds., TD). The Terps also have a solid offensive line that's only given up three sacks thus far.

You can bet that Tagovailoa and Co. are looking forward to lining up against an Illinois defense that ranks last in the conference in both total (481.7 ypg) and pass defense (311.7 ypg). The Illini also are near the bottom against the run (170.0 ypg, 12th), and points allowed per game (33.7 ppg, 13th). The individual bright spots thus far have been defensive back Devon Witherspoon (leads team with 20 tackles and seven pass deflections), defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. (team-high 2 sacks), and linebacker Jake Hansen (18 tackles, 1.5 TFLs).

When Illinois Has the Ball

Head coach Bret Bielema announced Monday that Brandon Peters will return to start at quarterback this week. Peters injured his non-throwing shoulder in the opener against Nebraska (35 passing yards) and hasn't seen the field since. In his absence, Artur Sitkowski has completed 56 percent of his passes for 611 yards and six touchdowns (he's tied with Tagovaiola in the Big Ten for second in that category) with just one interception.

Isaiah Williams is the Illini's leading receiver (19 rec., 183 yds., TD). Illinois ranks 10th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (144.3), with Mike Epstein seeing the most carries (25 att., 107 yds., TD) to this point. A veteran offensive line has struggled to open consistent running lines and has allowed six sacks in three games.

Illinois will be tasked with moving the ball against a Maryland defense that enters this game second in the Big Ten in yards allowed (235.5) and second in points (12.0) per contest. It should be pointed out that the Terrapins are coming off of a shutout against Howard, an FCS program. But this unit also has done a very good against the run in the early going, ranking third in the nation at 57 rushing yards allowed per game. That includes holding West Virginia to just 48 yards on the ground two weeks ago. The Terps also have five sacks and five takeaways in their first two games.

Final Analysis

Maryland won the only meeting between these teams back in 2018, but much has changed since that game. As for Saturday, unless Illinois can tighten up its defense and come up with some big plays of its own when it has the ball, the Terrapins are the team that enters this game with all of the momentum. The return of Peters injects some life into the Illini offense, but even at home it's not enough to prevent Maryland from improving to 3-0 on the season.

Prediction: Maryland 31, Illinois 24

Podcast: Recapping Week 2 + All of the Numbers to Know in College Football

— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.