CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Another blowout at Memorial Stadium, except this time it goes in Illinois’ favor.
“We beat a team that last year started off the season real well,” said Head Coach Lovie Smith.
Illinois came out firing on all cylinders, taking the first game of the 2019 season from the Akron Zips by a final score of 42-3 on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
The last time the Illini took the field in Champaign, they were crushed 63-0 on Senior Day by Iowa. This game was important for Illinois players, coaches, and the entire fanbase. It’s no secret everyone was ready for an Illini win, and that’s exactly what the people got.
Reggie Corbin did what Reggie Corbin does best, opening the scoring on the first drive of the game with a three-yard touchdown run. Much of the Illinois backfield saw action with Corbin, Mike Epstein, Dre Brown, Ra’Von Bonner, and Jakari Norwood all getting reps. It was Bonner who picked up a 10-yard score before the end of the first quarter, though.
Former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters looked impressive in his first game action with the Illini, ending his day with 163 yards passing and four total touchdowns. The offense never really struggled in the opener, finding the end zone on six of its first eight possessions. Peters said based on the offensive line today, he was happiest with the run blocking, “Our O-line did a great job all day upfront, pushing the line.”
Fellow transfer Trevon Sidney, Justice Williams, and Daniel Barker were all on the receiving end of Peters’ touchdown strikes, while Ricky Smalling led the Illini with 54 receiving yards on four catches.
Some were frustrated with the Illini’s plan of attack when the Akron offense took the field. The Zips were able to find multiple holes through the air, and there were two times during the first quarter where Illini defenders ran into each other.
After settling for a field goal on the opening drive, Akron struggled to get anything going from there on out. Turnovers, three-and-outs, missed field goals, the Zips were searching for answers, but kept coming up empty-handed.
Junior linebacker and captain Jake Hansen had himself a day, picking up his first career interception, a forced and recovered fumble, half a sack, and six tackles in the first half alone. “I just tried to play as hard as I could,” said Hansen. When asked about the forced and recovered fumble he stated, “That’s coach Smith ball right there. Like some of you guys have said, getting after the ball and getting takeaways, that’s what we pride ourselves on.”
Not everything was perfect, however. During the second quarter, the offense finally stalled in the red zone. Kicker James McCourt couldn’t connect from 30 yards out.
While the Illini and Akron were both able to move the ball through the air, the ground game was the difference in the first half. The Illini out-rushed the Zips 134 to seven in the first half. Defensively, the Illini were in complete control, forcing sacks, numerous tackles for loss and two turnovers.
The second half was smooth sailing for Lovie & Co.. With a huge lead, the Illini started working in the second- and third-stringers, giving the starters a much deserved rest.
“We set the bar today, we need to go from here,” said Smith.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
- Akron seemed to be driving with ease in the first quarter, but thanks to linebacker Jake Hansen with a huge sack on the third down, the Illini were able to keep Akron’s attempt to a field goal, which they converted.
- Peters was on fire in the first quarter, avoiding a sack he found Ricky Smalling for a first down completion. That moment led to the Illini’s third touchdown of the game:
Brandon Peters with a 6-for-9 start.— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) August 31, 2019
83 passing yards, three TD drives. Efficient. pic.twitter.com/316uc7FOwg
- Another big moment for Peters came in the second when he scored his first career rushing touchdown (20 yards) putting the Illini up 28-3, also proving that Peters can, in fact, run well.
Brandon Peters: dual-threat QB.@IlliniFootball is eatin' against Akron: pic.twitter.com/G7UBCjQPSw— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) August 31, 2019
- And as if he hasn’t already been through enough, running back Mike Epstein was seen being carted off the sideline in the fourth quarter. We’ll update you with his status when we find out more information.
TWEET OF THE GAME
Who doesn’t love a good Lovie GIF? Safe to say this head coach is happy with the Illini’s first performance of the season.
Lovie out there looking rejuvenated: pic.twitter.com/1bg1mndN1E— Alex Roux (@arouxBTN) August 31, 2019
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
After three penalties on the defense were called, Milo Eifler decided to take things into his own hands on the next play, with arguably his hardest hit yet. Smith commented on those penalties saying, “Official called it...That could hurt us, we’ll learn from that also. That’s one of those first game mistakes that we’ll learn from.”
Milo, that man has a family. pic.twitter.com/iBwBatrVoi— Illinois Football Breakdown (@ILLFBBreakdown) August 31, 2019
HE SAID IT
For Illinois overall performance Smith said, ‘We want to be a balanced team, simple as that. But that balance needs to start with the run.”
Brandon Peters talked about his feelings coming into this game, “I was a little nervous at first. But you know after the first play I was like, now we’re just playing football.” Brandon Peters.
Jake Hansen commented on the offense today, “I was really impressed with the offense’s performance. They show what they do in camp like we’d go back and forth and they’d have their great days and today was a great day for them.”
Illinois will have a chance to start off 2-0 next week when it hits the road for Connecticut to take on the Huskies, who barely escaped Wagner last night.