CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Ugly or not, Illinois has wrapped up its non-conference slate with a victory.
Following back-to-back double-digit losses, Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) got back in the win column on Saturday, overcoming an early 10-0 deficit to take care of Florida Atlantic 23-17.
Memorial Stadium was a bit tense early — and for a brief moment late — but ultimately, Illinois was able to hold off a pesky FAU team and get back to .500.
“Everybody talks about style points,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “I just think this team loves to win.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
Things got off to a rather disastrous start for the Illini.
A promising opening drive abruptly came to an end after Reggie Love’s 4th-and-3 carry came up just short of the sticks.
Luke Altmyer’s turnover woes continued on the subsequent drive with a strip sack fumble that set Florida Atlantic (1-3) up for the game’s first points — a 22-yard field goal that gave the Owls a 3-0 lead.
A quick Illinois 3-and-out, a personal foul on the Owls’ punt return, and a 19-yard touchdown reception by FAU’s LaJohntay Wester on the final play of the first quarter left the Illini trailing 10-0 in the blink of an eye.
In the second quarter, Illinois finally halted the Owl momentum with a trick play flea flicker that resulted in a 46-yard touchdown strike from Altmyer to tight end Griffin Moore.
After jumping out in front to close the first half on Altmyer’s 9-yard scramble, the Illini were able to keep the Owls at arm's length the rest of the way.
“The story of the day, by far, was the defense,” head coach Bret Bielema said.
That defense held off back-to-back Florida Atlantic red zone drives, ensuring that what turned out to be a somewhat uncomfortable win never reached a dire point.
A fourth quarter Florida Atlantic touchdown gave the Owls some life, but Illinois didn’t let the ball touch their hands again, putting the game away on Josh McCray and Kaden Feagin first down runs.
The spotlight had been on quarterback Luke Altmyer all week after his 4-interception performance against Penn State. While he was far from perfect — he missed several opportunities downfield — the first-year starter bounced back nicely overall, going 25-for-36 for 303 yards and a touchdown.
“It was a tough week,” Altmyer said. “The people around me really propelled me forward.”
One of those people? His top target, Isaiah Williams, who made life much easier for Altmyer on Saturday.
Williams tied a career-high with 120 yards on eight catches, including a 45-yard reception on third down that set up redshirt freshman Aidan Laughery’s first career touchdown in the third quarter. The junior has been by far the Illini’s most productive weapon through four weeks.
“One thing I talked about this week is I just want us to be one,” Williams said. “When you have a game like that, it gives you great momentum.”
In what was thought to be a matchup where Illinois could “get right” and impose its will, that wasn’t necessarily the case for most of the afternoon.
Two fumbles and six penalties — three of them personal fouls — stopped the Illini from gaining enough separation needed to make the game comfortable.
The offensive line continued its early season struggles, allowing four sacks of Luke Altmyer and until late, struggling to get consistent push in the run game. Despite 507 yards of total offense from Barry Lunney’s unit, they still came up short on multiple red zone drives.
Regardless, Illinois will be more than happy to enter the rest of conference play with another win to its name.
“I don’t know if anything’s going to be pretty with this group, but I think they’re going to play tough, gritty football,” Bielema said.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Finally, some creativity from Barry Lunney Jr.
Heck of a catch by Isaiah Williams.
Illinois will see its old buddy Ryan Walters for the first time as Purdue’s head coach when the Illini and Boilermakers do battle next Saturday in West Lafayette.
Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. exclusively on...brace yourselves...Peacock.