CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Too little too late for Illinois.
After starting the season 2-0, the Illini dropped their final non-conference game of the season to Eastern Michigan, 34-31, on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Illinois hasn’t swept its non-conference slate since 2011.
“Disappointing game,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “There was a lot at stake today, I thought we’d play a lot better than we did.”
Illinois was once again led by Brandon Peters’ arm early on, who began the game 8-10 for 138 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter. After the hot start, Peters was just 11-21 for 77 yards before the final drive. The Illini were held scoreless from end of the first quarter to midway through the fourth quarter.
But when Illinois needed its QB1 to lead a game-tying drive, he delivered.
“To be down 14-points and to come back and give ourselves a chance to win the game at the end shows a lot,” Smith said.
Peters threw for 82 yards on the final drive. The transfer delivered a huge fourth and ten conversion and outdid himself with a 36 yard strike off-balance while evading pressure to find Josh Imatorbhebhe for the game-tying score.
“Anytime we’re down we never feel like we’re out,” Imatorbhebhe said. We just know that one big play can spark up the momentum we need in order to come back.”
Bhebhe also had high praise for his quarterback to get him the ball in such a clutch situation.
“He did a good job of finding me in that last drive so hats off to him,” Imatorbhebhe said.
But it wasn’t enough.
Mike Glass was a nightmare for the Illini all game long. His dual threat ability made Illinois’ usually solid pass rush non-existent, and he capitalized on a weak Illini secondary with three first half touchdown strikes.
“Their quarterback played outstanding ball,” Smith said.
Glass continued to gash Illinois for big plays with both his arms and his legs. Even after Peters’ score tied the game, Glass marched the Eagles down the field for the game winning field goal. He finished the afternoon with 316 yards and three touchdowns in the air and an additional 37 yards on the ground.
Glass’ ability to create big plays ultimately did the Illini in.
The Illini found themselves in what looked to be shoot out against Eastern Michigan, in a first quarter that included 31 points between the two squads. The game eventually settled down, only nine points were scored in the second and third quarters and all were by Eastern Michigan.
As Eastern Michigan adjusted defensively, Peters and the offense slowed considerably. Peters was sacked multiple times and one of those led to a fumble, as the Illini began to unravel offensively. Peters and co. turned it over in back to back drives in the third quarter.
Peters ended the game with 297 yards and a pair of scores, the second a huge game-tying score. But he struggled to find consistency after his solid start until that final drive.
“It was just bad, we had bad execution on offense,” Peters said. “Penalties and turnovers killed us... we played behind the chains all day.”
“[Peters] played the way I coached,” Smith said. “Not good enough.”
However, despite his efforts that were “not good enough” Lovie made sure to say that Peters’ job was never in question.
“Brandon is our quarterback,” he said.
Reggie Corbin was an offensive bright spot. The senior ran for 144 yards and a touchdown in his return to the field after missing seven consecutive quarters of football.
“He showed at times why we say he’s our best football player,” Smith said of running back Reggie Corbin’s performance.
“Don’t get hit, run as fast as I can and just put it in the end zone,” Corbin said of what was going through his mind before his run.
Corbin mentioned that he did have some physical limitations, but his 100+ yard performance did not show them.
In terms of mistakes, the offense made plenty. Corbin explained that those mistakes are correctable.
“If we fix that, it probably wouldn’t have been close at all,” Corbin said.
Penalties ultimately handicapped the Illini, as big plays were consistently brought back with holds and defensive stops were negated with late hits. The Illini struggled to get momentum on either side of the ball because of the constant presence of yellow flags flying out of the referee’s hands.
“Turnovers really hurt us throughout,” Smith said. “Penalties hurt us maybe even more.”
The Illini certainly showed fight, but the defense’s holes and lack of rhythm offensively proved costly in Illinois’ final non-conference game.
Defensively, Dele Harding led the pack with 17 tackles, but understands that the unit needs to be better.
“We just gotta execute,” Harding said.
“We gotta come through as a unit,” the junior said. “[We have to] make plays when our names are called.”
The Illini will have their work cut out for them as Big Ten play begins next week.
Moments that Mattered
- KICKER: The Illini seem to have found their kicker, as James McCourt booted a 57 yarder in the first quarter.
- PETERS POUNDED: In the second quarter, Brandon Peters was crushed by an Eagle defender. Peters was helped off the field but returned to the game. However, following the hit, Peters struggled hitting receivers on target and the Illini offense was slowed at the end of the first half, the entire third and most of the fourth quarter.
- PENALTY: On both sides of the ball, the Illini looked extremely undisciplined. The Illini suffered nine penalties for 80 yards on Saturday.
- TALE OF TWO QUARTERS: The Illini put up 178 yards and 17 points in the firs quarter, but only tallied 62 yards for zero points in the second quarter.
- BeWARE: When Illinois desperately needed some momentum, Delano Ware forced a fumble and Jake Hansen recovered to rejuvenate the Illini and the fans in Memorial Stadium.
James McCourt is currently the only kicker in the nation with two 50+-yard field goals made.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) September 14, 2019
Illinois started six transfers - QB Brandon Peters, WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR Trevon Sidney, OL Richie Petitbon, DL Oluwole Betiku Jr., LB Milo Eifler— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) September 14, 2019
Transfer starters by game: 5, 6, 6
You Gotta See This
That boot!— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 14, 2019
James McCourt ties an @IlliniFootball record with a 57-yard FG. #BTNStandout x @AutoOwnersIns pic.twitter.com/YzBqkpuE8z
He said it
“Next week will be a better indicator of exactly where we’re at,” head coach Lovie Smith said.
The Illini (2-1) stay at home for next week’s Big Ten opener against Nebraska (1-1) (they play tonight). The game will be televised at 7 p.m. on Big Ten Network. This marks Illinois first home game under the lights since last season’s Penn State game.