Illini drop nail biter against Eagles


Jonathan Bonaguro

Brandon Peters (18) dropped back in the pocket at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Illinois lost to Eastern Michigan 34-31.

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

So close, and yet so far. With 12 minutes left, it looked insurmountable. The crowd sat silently in frustration, hoping for something big in the closing minutes. At seven minutes, it looked promising. At two minutes to go, the screams from Memorial Stadium could be heard all throughout campus.

But when the clock struck zero, Illinois coined its first loss of the season. So close, yet so far. Illini football dropped its final non conference game to the Eagles in a nail-biter, with a last-second field goal being the deciding factor.

“(It was a) disappointing game,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “We knew what type of team we were playing. We knew we had the opportunity to finish the nonconference schedule with a 3-0 record. I thought we would play a lot better than we did.”

After a scoreless first five minutes, junior James McCourt kicked off the first-quarter shootout with a 57-yard field goal. The goal stands as the new record holder for the longest field goal conversion in Memorial Stadium’s history.

Eastern Michigan University responded with its own major play by way of a 47-yard carry from sophomore wide receiver Jairus Grissom. In the subsequent play, senior quarterback Mike Glass found senior receiver Arthur Jackson for a 26-yard completion to put Eastern Michigan University on the board up 7-3.

“Defensively, when you start out like that, giving up big passing plays, it’s not a good sign,” Smith said. “Their quarterback played outstanding ball, passed for over 300 yards and had three touchdowns. We’re not set up to give up plays like that.”

The punch-counterpunch sequence between the two offenses continued throughout the remainder of the first. Sophomore tight end Daniel Barker would then have his own 52-yard carry. The advance led to a touchdown completion by junior receiver Ricky Smalling from transfer quarterback Brandon Peters to put the Illini up 10-7 with 6:52 left.

Eastern Michigan University took the lead back with another 50-yard play, this time a 54-yard completion to senior receiver Mathew Sexton to go up 14-10. As the first quarter came to a close, Peters found junior receiver Dominic Stampley for a tough 27-yard catch that put the Illini into the Eagles’ end zone. Junior running back Ra’Von Bonner would rush the remaining 4 yards to flip the advantage back in Illinois’ favor 17-14 just as the first quarter came to a close.

As the second quarter kicked off, the shootout that had transpired in the first subsided as the defenses settled in. Illinois was the first to crack. After holding each other scoreless for the first seven minutes of the quarter, Glass found Jackson again, this time with a 31-yard pass to swing the lead back over to the Eagles 20-17.

Eastern Michigan then had a major field goal of its own with a 52-yard field goal by sophomore Chad Ryland, the second 50-yard field goal conversion of the game to extend the lead 23-17. A hard sack on Brandon Peters by Eastern Michigan University’s senior lineman Hunter Andrews for a fourth down gave the team another opportunity to score, but they failed to capitalize before the end of the half. Instead, senior running back Reggie Corbin rushed for 35 yards, ending the second quarter for the Illini at the Eagles’ 35-yard line.

Eastern Michigan University’s defense began to really punish Peters throughout the third period. After a strong first quarter, the Illini QB suffered five sacks up to the midway point in the third period. Oluwole Betiku Jr., who currently leads the nation in sacks, had another big sack on Glass that cost 6 yards, but the Illini weren’t able to capitalize offensively.

What would have been another major pass completion from Glass turned into a fumble recovered by junior linebacker Jake Hansen for the Illini, but shortly after another sack on Peters resulted in a fumble that was recovered by senior defensive back Brody Hoying with 6:09 left in the third. The slugfest would continue for the remainder of the period as both teams went scoreless throughout.

The Eagles ended the scoring drought by opening the fourth with a touchdown from Sexton and a two-point conversion, taking a commanding 31-17 lead. The situation for the Illini looked dire as the first half of the first quarter started coming to close, but a 28-yard find from Peters to Corbin midway through the fourth gave the Illini an opportunity to tie up the game.

Illinois regained the football with just under four minutes left to play. Stuck at their own end zone, the Illini’s chances were again looking slim that they would be able to complete their fourth-quarter comeback.

But then, Peters completed three straight first-down passes to advance to the Eagles’ 36-yard line. Peters capped off the possession with a 36-yard bullet to junior receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe to tie the game with 1:44 remaining in the fourth.

Glass came alive for Eastern Michigan University in their final drive. After gaining 12 yards in two plays, he threw for 23-yards in back to back plays to put the Eagles right into the Illini end zone with eight seconds on the clock. Ryland finished the game off with a field goal from the 24-yard line, securing a win for the Eagles 34-31.

“We’re a Big Ten team, and we start Big Ten play next week,” Smith said. “Reality is, we clean up things and take care of business next week, we’ll forget all about this. But right now, you just have to take it game by game. We had the opportunity to do something we hadn’t done in years, but we didn’t get it done.”


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