A week after ending a drought that lasted since 2007, the Illini will look to do something that has not been done since 2011: start 3-0.
The Illini defeated Connecticut 31-23 to earn their first non-conference road win since 2007 against Syracuse. This win, however, came after Illinois was facing a 13-0 deficit.
“If you’re a good football team, you’re going to have to be able to fight through adversity,” Head Coach Lovie Smith said.
Brandon Peters fought through adversity more than anyone, after throwing a first quarter pick-six, and then coming back to throw four touchdowns while leading Illinois to a comeback win.
“I kept the guys calm and they were confident that there was no panic in me,” Peters said.
Peters has tallied seven touchdowns (plus one on the ground) in his first two games in an Illini uniform, and the graduate transfer seems to be transitioning well into the Illinois offense.
“I feel great, the offense is making some really good strides,” Peters said.
In the Illini’s opening game win over Akron, Ricky Smalling emerged as Brandon Peters’ favorite target, and through two games he has 11 catches for 110 yards.
On Saturday against Connecticut, Peters found a go-to target in the red zone: Josh Imatorbhebhe. The junior transfer from USC caught four passes for just 42 yards, but two of those catches were forceful touchdown grabs to complete the comeback against the Huskies.
“The play call we had set up was a corner route for Trevon Sidney, Brandon did a good job at recognizing and escaping the play. We went into scramble drill mode, and he had a good feeling that number nine can jump up on top a ladder and get it,” said offensive coordinator Rod Smith. “Super excited about Bhebhe, can’t wait to see what he can do.”
“Super confident [to throw to Imatorbhebhe], he’s a big target and he knows how to get open, Peters said. “I believe in his athletic ability to go and get the ball.”
On the injury front, the Illini were without Reggie Corbin on Saturday, who is still dealing with a nagging hip pointer injury.
“Hopefully we’ll have him back this week,” Lovie Smith said. Later in the press conference, he added, “We need him back this week. We’re a lot better football team with him.”
Defensively, the Illini have been led by the NCAA’s sack leader, Oluwole Betiku Jr.. Through two games, he has tallied five sacks and ten total tackles.
“He can be a physical guy, playing the run... If you just look at his athletic ability, you can assume he can rush the passer too,” Lovie Smith said.
But Smith told the media that he expects to see Betiku improve moving forward.
“I’m anxious to see him take another step,” Smith said, which he added on to saying he would like to see the junior strip-sack the quarterback. “Sky is the limit for him.”
The Illini welcome Eastern Michigan this week which is coming off a 38-17 loss against Kentucky. But also only a year removed from upsetting Purdue.
“[Eastern Michigan] upset Big-Ten opponents last year,” Smith said. “We need to make some improvements in all three areas, and to finish the non-conference record with a 3-0 is exactly where we want to be.”
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith had some high praise for the Eastern Michigan team that the Illini will square off against this weekend.
“This will be the toughest team on our schedule, to date,” Rod Smith said. “This will be the toughest game we play, let’s roll,”
In terms of team goals for this week, there is one that outshines the rest for the Illini this week.
“We want to be 3-and-0,” Lovie Smith said.