Last Saturday, Artur Sitkowski was the hero for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Coming off the bench to lead the Illini to victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers after Brandon Peters went down with an injury, Sitkowski compiled an impressive 124 yards passing and threw for two touchdowns, along with a completion percentage of 80% (12 of 15). His performance earned him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Sitkowski looked the part of a legitimate Big Ten quarterback throughout most of the game last week, but that was often far from the case not too long ago. To illustrate how far he’s come, and to showcase younger versions of a few other current Illini, let’s take a look back at the last time Sitkowski crossed paths with Illinois in 2018.
Setting the Stage
It’s now Oct. 6, 2018. Illinois is in the third season of the Lovie Smith era, and some familiar names are starting to fill out the roster. Mike Epstein is establishing himself at running back alongside Reggie Corbin; sophomore Jake Hansen is proving that his season-ending injury in 2017 hasn’t slowed him down; and sophomore Blake Hayes is continuing to amaze fans and frustrate opposing coaches with his mythical punting abilities.
But there were also many names on the Illini roster that might be starting to fade from the memories of most Illinois fans today. For instance, the starting quarterback was Nebraska graduate transfer A.J. Bush, and the defensive roster was headlined by the likes of Del’Shawn Phillips (now on the New York Jets), Nate Hobbs (Las Vegas Raiders), and Jamal Milan.
Opposing the Illini that day in Piscataway was a Rutgers Scarlet Knights team struggling through its third season under head coach Chris Ash. Rutgers won its season opener against Texas State, but had dropped four straight going into the matchup with the Illini, including a 55-14 drubbing against the Kansas Jayhawks and a 42-13 loss against the Buffalo Bulls. At the heart of the program at that point was true freshman starting quarterback Artur Sitkowski.
Having turned down offers from the likes of the Florida Gators, Miami Hurricanes, and Ohio State Buckeyes in favor of seeing early playing time at Rutgers, Sitkowski was thrust into the starting role and immediately struggled with accuracy problems during the young season. Ash felt that the only way Sitkowski could develop was to learn from his mistakes and stay under center until his accuracy improved. This proved to be an unwise strategy, as Sitkowski had thrown eight interceptions going into the game against Illinois.
The Illini received the game’s opening kickoff and gained 17 yards on six plays, but punted it away only to take the ball right back on the next down through Sitkowski’s first interception: a pass into heavy coverage that was picked off by current Illini teammate Quan Martin.
The Illini only gained five yards on the ensuing possession and settled for a field goal, but the Scarlet Knights then took their only lead on the day as Jonathan Hilliman punched in a 32-yard run to cap off a 12-play, 75-yard drive. Rutgers was up 7-3.
That lead wouldn’t last though, as Bush would answer on the next possession with a downright bizarre Illini touchdown to take the lead.
After a few more changes of possession, the momentum began to shift in Illinois’ favor following Sitkowski’s second interception of the day: a sliding grab by Del’Shawn Phillips on an underthrown pass across the middle of the field.
The Illini made took advantage of the turnover, and a 41-yard Bush touchdown run extended Illinois’ lead to 17-7. Bush was always seemingly at this best with the ball in his hands and keeping it on the ground, where his long frame and speed gave him the advantage.
Illinois would continue to pile on points, as its next possession featured one of the longest rushes in Reggie Corbin’s illustrious Illini career: a 73-yard scamper on the first play of the drive to put Illinois up 24-7.
Corbin’s quickness, speed, and vision, all of which were on full display during this run, helped to solidify his place as one of the best Illinois running backs in recent memory.
Reggie Corbin Touchdown pic.twitter.com/KqvXV7qpZ3— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) October 6, 2018
The Scarlet Knights would finally answer just before halftime, as Sitkowski found Travis Vokolek along the sideline for Sitkowski’s first and only passing touchdown of the day. You can also see Sitkowski look off Nate Hobbs by drawing him towards the running back in the flat, before hitting his tight end in single coverage.
That pass capped off an 11-play, 80-yard drive by Rutgers, which was a common result of Lovie Smith’s defensive schemes, as Illinois’ focus was on preventing big plays and generating turnovers rather than stopping offenses on third down.
No scoring occurred at all in the third quarter, but Bush secured his only passing touchdown of the day on a one-handed grab by Ricky Smalling. The core members of Illinois’ current offensive line (Vederian Lowe, Doug Kramer, and Alex Palczewski) were all sophomores at this point, but as you can see below, they were still effective at pass protection even with relatively little experience. This is certainly a testament to the skill we still see them exhibit in 2021.
AJ Bush to Ricky Smalling TD pic.twitter.com/F3s7F48IiA— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) October 6, 2018
Rutgers would cut Illinois’ lead late in the fourth quarter with a field goal to make the score 31-17, but the outcome was still not in serious doubt. Then-sophomore running back Mike Epstein would show off his straight-line speed on a 41-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to put the game away for good.
Epstein has always been able to showcase this type of speed when healthy, but Bret Bielema will need to keep Epstein healthy and likely limit his touches in 2021 to make sure that he’s available throughout the season, since he could easily break through for one of these long runs on any down that he’s on the field.
Also take note of the massive offensive line push generated by Lowe, Kramer, and Palczewski, along with current professionals Nick Allegretti (Kansas City Chiefs) and Kendrick Green (Pittsburgh Steelers).
Sitkowski’s third and final interception came against Hobbs on Rutgers’ last possession. We didn’t see many passes like this into heavy coverage from Sitkowski against Nebraska on Saturday, as Tony Petersen mostly called on him to make high percentage passes and only occasionally try long passes toward the endzone. Between Sitkowski’s accumulated experience and the new offense, the days of seeing head-scratching interceptions like these on a regular basis should be coming to an end.
Not relying on Sitkowski to be the centerpiece of the offense is another factor that should help Illinois in 2021 to learn from the lessons of the past. In this game from 2018, Sitkowski passed 46 times, while he was only called on to attempt 15 passes last Saturday. Clearly, Petersen plans to win games on the ground while only infrequently asking Sitkowski to air it out, and that has already proven to be a winning approach against talented conference opposition.