Illinois welcomes experienced UTSA squad, looks to improve to 2-0


Lanie Hibel

Illinois gets set at the line of scrimmage before a play against Nebraska on Aug. 28. The Illini will welcome the UTSA Roadrunners on Saturday and look to improve to 2-0.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

After starting their season on a high note with a dominant win over Nebraska last week, the Illini will look to continue their winning ways when they host the University of Texas San Antonio at Memorial Stadium this Saturday at 6:40 p.m.

UTSA went 7-5 last season, qualifying for a bowl game in which it narrowly lost 31-24 against No. 19 Louisiana. Like the Illini, they are returning the vast majority of players on their roster so they will have continuity going for them.

However, they switched defensive coordinators in the offseason, installing Jess Loepp and Rod Wright as co-defensive coordinators. Their defense was stout last year, leading Conference USA in turnover margin, interceptions and sacks. It would be a surprise to see much change schematically for them, but head coach Bret Bielema does see Illinois at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of film to prepare with.

“We have one (game of) film out on us,” Bielema said. “We have no film on UTSA. They’re a set staff with one year on them. Coach Traylor has been an incredibly gifted coach throughout his whole career. He just stands for all the right things in the outside world, so we have a tremendous challenge because I know they’ll be very well coached. ”

UTSA figures to be another opponent with a strong ground game on both sides of the ball. Last season, the Roadrunners averaged 215.4 rushing yards per game while allowing just 162.1. The primary threat on that side of the ball is Sincere McCormick, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season. Their quarterback, Frank Harris, may prove to be mobile as well. He averaged 48 rushing yards per game last season.

Illinois succeeded at containing Nebraska’s typically strong rushing attack last week, allowing 160 yards. However, the Illini failed to earn much more on the ground, yielding 167 yards themselves, and they will likely need to do better offensively to win this week.

While UTSA may be a smaller school from a less prominent conference, Bielema is not letting the Illini get complacent.

“In my 13th year as a head coach, I put the same thing into every game,” Bielema said. “I think the outside world is like, ‘Oh, you really get up from Nebraska. It’s a division opponent.’ If we flip these two, I’d prep the same for UTSA as if it was Nebraska. That’s how I’m wired, and I won’t allow people to be wired any other way in our building. The Smith Center respects our opponents every day. We come to work with the same approach, same mentality.”

One major question for the Illini will be who takes the helm at quarterback this week. Last week’s starter, Brandon Peters, sustained an injury to his non-throwing left shoulder early on against Nebraska. Afterward, backup Art Sitkowski played nothing short of spectacular, going 12-for-15 for 124 yards and two touchdowns. So far, Peters has not been ruled out and did not sustain a major injury to the shoulder, according to Bielema. However, it wouldn’t be surprising for Bielema to give Sitkowski the nod after last week’s success to give Peters some rest and determine exactly what Illinois has in Sitkowski.

“There will be 77 seniors on the field Saturday (between both teams) that will be out there competing, so those guys have made a commitment just like our guys did to come back and do this,” Bielema said. “Defensively, they’ve got all 11 guys back. Any time you start 11 starters, it’s usually a good thing. Although they’ve had some transition with the coordinator title, it was guys they promoted from within, so a lot of carry-over and just excited for our guys to see how they get into the flow of things now.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, obviously a very talented UTSA team, but the part we try to train into our guys is (that) it’s not (about) what they do. It’s what we do.”