Illinois defeats Akron in home season opener


Jonathan Bonaguro

Illinois tight end Daniel Barker (87) celebrates with teammates Griffin Palmer (81), Vederian Lowe (79), and Alex Palczewski (63) after scoring a touchdown on Saturday against Akron. The Illini won 42-3.

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

Illinois football steamrolled its way through the Akron Zips in its seasonal debut at Memorial Stadium by a score of 42-3.

“We all worked to get to the first game to see where we are … this is a good start,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “We’ll need to continue to raise our level of play, but this is a good start.”

Illinois’ offense wasted no time getting into the scoring column against Akron. Senior running back Reggie Corbin had 35 rush yards and five carries as he scored the first touchdown of the morning, with a field goal conversion from kicker James McCourt putting the Illini up 7-0 within the first five minutes of the opening quarter.

The Zips responded by immediately advancing down the field, getting as far as the Illini’s 20-yard line before scoring on a field goal attempt by kicker Jerry Fitschen to cut the lead 7-3.

Transfer quarterback Brandon Peters looked comfortable in the following possession for the Illini, with back-to-back 22- and 12-yard completions to advance the ball back into the Zips’ end zone. The possession was capped off by a 10-yard carry from junior RB Ra’Von Bonner to put the Illini up 14-3.

A fumble by Akron quarterback Kato Nelson was recovered by junior linebacker Jake Hansen to put the Illini back on the Zips’ 24-yard line. Peters avoided a sack on a blitz attempt and found junior wide receiver Ricky Smalling to put the Illini in the Zips’ endzone to close off the quarter.

Illinois opened the second with a 10-yard completion pass from Peters to junior transfer WR Trevon Sidney, extending the lead to 21-3. After a string of possessions hovering around the Zips’ 40-yard line, Hansen forced another turnover, this time with an interception at the Zips’ 38 for another Illini advance.

Illinois put themselves in position to score another field goal at Akron’s 17-yard line, but the kick was missed by junior kicker James McCourt.

A 16-yard punt return by Jerry Fitschen put the Illini back on the 20-yard line, which allowed Peters to carry all the way to the endzone for another Illini touchdown with just over two minutes remaining.

In the remaining two minutes, the Illini defense harassed the Zips as they failed to advance past their own 40-yard line, closing out the half up 28-3.

Akron started off the second half with the ball in its hands, but the suffocating defense forced a quick turnover once again. Peters found WR Josh Imatorbhebhe for a 22-yard completion, followed shortly after by a 16-yard rush from Sidney. Illinois scored its fifth touchdown of the game with an effortless 9-yard completion to senior tight end Justice Williams.

“I need to get away from calling ourselves a running team because we want to be a more balanced team,” Smith said. “Balance needs to start from the run. We know that from years past our passing game needs to get better, starting with QB. But now, we know we have a lot of options.”

With 4:30 left on the clock in the third, a pass interference put the Illini offense on first and goal. A 2-yard completion from Peters to sophomore tight end Daniel Barker completed the possession and netted the Illini their sixth touchdown of the afternoon.

“Barker had an outstanding training camp,” Smith said. “He can block, you can put him in line, and he can handle multiple defenses. His best football is ahead.”

The teams both lost players within the next 30 seconds. On defense, sophomore free safety Kerby Joseph was ejected after officials determined he was targeting in the first half. In the following play, the Zips’ Michael Mathison went down after a hard tackle by Milo Eifler and was helped off the field.

Akron had an opportunity to score for the first time since the first quarter, but missed the field goal attempt. It finished the third quarter down 42-3 to Illinois, as Illinois used its insurmountable lead to cruise during a scoreless fourth quarter that saw backup QB Matt Robinson make his Illini debut.

With the win, the Illini kickstart their season 1-0 and come back to Memorial Stadium next Saturday for an afternoon match against Connecticut. Six Illini carried more than 25 yards (led by Mike Epstein’s 45), while the defense was stifling across the board, featuring seven Illini securing at least 5 tackles. Peters finished his debut at QB with three touchdowns, 163 yards, and completed 14-23 attempts.

“I’m gonna stop talking about last year too,” Smith said. “Now we have one game under our belt, and this is what we’re going to be judged by. We set the bar today.”


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