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UTSA holds off Illinois for first-ever Big Ten win

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At least the Illini are still undefeated in Big Ten play.

Brad Repplinger

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With a chance to tie the game late, Artur Sitkowski and the Illini couldn’t march down the field to punch in the tying score. A Hail Mary heave as time expired was hauled in but out of bounds.

A disappointing end to a disappointing game for Illinois.

Despite trading points for most of the second half, Illinois (1-1, 1-0 BIG) never led against UTSA (1-0), losing 37-30 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.

The Illinois defense was tasked with shutting down the Roadrunners’ dual-threat quarterback Frank Harris and the reigning Conference-USA Offensive Player of the Year, running back Sincere McCormick — who many expect to be playing in the NFL someday.

The Illini contained McCormick, holding him to roughly four yards per carry. The struggles were containing Harris’ favorite target, Zakhari Franklin. The junior wideout caught 10 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown as he gashed Illinois all game long.

At quarterback the Illini were without Week 0 starter Brandon Peters, who injured his left shoulder in the first quarter of last week’s win over Nebraska. It was the Rutgers transfer Sitkowski who drew his first start in Orange and Blue.

Sitkowski and the Illini got off to a slow start offensively; in fact, he didn’t complete a pass until he launched a 31-yard touchdown to fellow quarterback (transitioning to receiver) Deuce Spann with just over nine minutes left in the first half.

Sitkowski finished with a trio of touchdown scores and 266 yards through the air.

After the Roadrunners jumped out to a 14-0 lead, the Illini narrowed their deficit to 17-14 late in the second quarter. A three-and-out from UTSA would give Illinois the ball back with just under two minutes to go in the first half. On the ensuing punt, Illini special teamer Kerby Joseph ran into the back-spinning punt while blocking, and UTSA fell on top of it with great field position.

A strong red zone defensive effort allowed just a field goal, but the Illini lost a lot of momentum and went into the half down 20-14.

After failing to score on the first possession of the half, the Illini were able to force a turnover on the ensuing Roadrunners possession. Isaiah Gay pounced on a Harris fumble and set up the Illini with a 52-yd field goal by James McCourt — his first make of the young season.

The teams’ traded field goals from there forward, but Harris led the Roadrunners to a touchdown drive — including passes of 43 and 19 yards — to open the fourth quarter and give his team a 30-20 lead. Illinois was able to respond via the Sitkowski to Daniel Barker connection. Barker caught three passes for 54 and a touchdown on the Illini’s fourth quarter touchdown drive, making the game 30-27.

After playing primarily bend don’t break defense, Brenden Brady busted through the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 2 with roughly five minutes to go and scampered to the end zone for a 33-yd score — giving the Roadrunners a ten point lead once again, a lead they would ride to their first win of 2021.

Illinois added a field goal, but couldn’t complete the comeback against UTSA.

STAT STUFFERS

  • After making his first career catch last week against Nebraska, Freshman Deuce Spann caught his first career touchdown Saturday night.
  • Speaking of firsts, tight end Daniel Barker’s first catch of the season was a 14-yard touchdown catch.
  • Before exiting the game with an injury, Illini defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr picked up his team leading second sack of the season.

SOUND SMART

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The Illini’s first score went... QB to QB.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

Some might say this throw was... a work of Art.

TWEET OF THE GAME

UP NEXT

Illinois has its first road contest of the season next week as the Illini travel to Virginia to take on the Cavaliers.

Kickoff is set for Saturday at 10 a.m. CT on the ACC Network.