Peters, entire offense shut down by Wisconsin

Quarterback+Brandon+Peters+faces+pressure+from+the+Wisconsin+defense+in+the+first+game+of+the+season+Friday+night.+The+Illini+lost+to+the+Badgers+45-7.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Quarterback Brandon Peters faces pressure from the Wisconsin defense in the first game of the season Friday night. The Illini lost to the Badgers 45-7.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

This was it. This was supposed to be Lovie Smith’s most talented offense yet. Veteran quarterback? Check. Experienced offensive line? Check. Talented receiver core? Check. The Illini were going to prove the pundits wrong and put up a fight — or even upset — the Wisconsin Badgers. That was before the teams kicked off, however. 

Turnovers, penalties and an off day from Brandon Peters resulted in the offense getting shut out by the Wisconsin Badgers in a humbling 45-7 defeat. While freshman quarterback Graham Mertz rewrote the Wisconsin record books, Peters suffered one of his worst games since arriving in Champaign. 

 “We never got into rhythm with our passing game,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “ I mean, the running game can help that an awful lot. But I thought we had some moments where we got to complete more passes. We got to get the ball to our tight ends. Brandon is the first guy to tell you he would like to have some throws back.”

The opening drive was a perfect indicator of how the evening would play out. On only the second play of scrimmage, senior running back Mike Epstein, who hasn’t played since August 2019, fumbled the ball, which eventually led to an early Wisconsin touchdown. The Badgers stuffed the running backs all game long, forcing Peters to keep the defense honest with his arm. 

Peters struggled with throws in the first half, including almost throwing a pick-six on the second drive. The senior quarterback, who was constantly under pressure from the Badger interior, relied heavily on Josh Imatorbhebhe, struggling to get his other receivers involved early. 

“I mean, I was just throwing to wear my reads took me,” Peters said. “I don’t just drop back and look for one guy. The guys I threw to in the second half were the ones who got open.”

Imatorbhebhe finished with three receptions despite being thrown to 10 times, accounting for over half of Peters’ 19 pass attempts. 

While the offense couldn’t find any rhythm with the passing game, the Illini found some life in the first half behind Peters’ rushing ability, an underrated facet of his game the Badgers’ momentarily overlooked. 

Peters, who finished with a team-high 75 rushing yards, was able to bring his team into Badger territory on multiple occasions before the drives got stalled with penalties, inaccurate passing and failed fourth-down conversions. 

“When a team jumps out 14-0 like that, we need to score some touchdowns,” Smith said on the multiple fourth-down attempts. “ I thought they were manageable. We were just off a little. We want to be aggressive of course.”

In the Illini’s defense, the Wisconsin Badger defense lived up to the hype of being one of the most premier units in the nation. Returning nine starters off of a team that finished top 10 in major total and scoring defense, the Badgers’ consistent pressure and fundamental play made every yard hard to come by. 

Throughout the game, the Illini got the chance to see the potential future face of the program, although it wasn’t effective: Isaiah Williams. 

Beginning in the second quarter, the Illini pulled Peters in and out of the game in favor of the freshman, who ran a Wildcat offense when in. Limited to only running calls, Williams handed off the ball every time in the first half besides keeping it once for a five-yard gain. 

“Isaiah has done some good things in practice,” Smith said. “First game, you kind of want to see what you have. Going in, we had a package design just for him, so the plan was for him to play no matter how the game was going. When nothing’s going on, it’s tough duty going in.”

Although Peters was informed his backup would see the field, the senior quarterback was surprised by the playing time given. 

“The amount he was in caught me off guard,” Peters said. “Coming into the game, it was supposed to be only three or four plays. But like I said, you (have to do) what the coaches want.”

On one particular drive, with the score at 14-0, Williams played the majority of the drive and led the Illini down to the Wisconsin 28 yard line. On fourth and 2, though, Coach Smith pulled the freshman out and placed Peters back in, which resulted in an incomplete pass and a loss of possession. 

“It’s at the coaches discretion,” Peters said. “They do what they feel like they have to do. Personally, it’s tough sometimes getting into a rhythm and get thrown in there at fourth and 2 when you haven’t been in there the whole drive.”

Once it became apparent an Illini miracle wouldn’t transpire, Peters was pulled for good, finishing with 87 yards on only eight completions. The scrambling Williams was even less effective through the air, finishing 0-for-3 with an interception. 

With the Illini offense being absent, Tarique Barnes’ scoop and score was the only thing preventing the Illini from being shut out for the first time since 2018. Taking two steps backward for every step forward proved to be too costly against the Big Ten’s premier defense.

“It comes down to converting on fourth and third down,” Peters said. “We have to stay ahead of the chains and move the chains.”

While this performance will make Illini fans question how last season’s 24-23 stunner over the Badgers was even possible, the team can only go up from here. However, the Illini have serious problems awaiting if a passing threat isn’t established. 

“Thank the football gods we have eight more games to go,” Peters said.

 

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