Illinois struggles to contain high-powered UTSA offense in disappointing home loss

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Ryan Ash

Art Sitkowski (9) hands the ball off to Jakari Norwood (3) in the first half during the game against the University of Texas at San Antonio at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois fell to UTSA, 37-30, after struggling offensively in the absence of starting quarterback Brandon Peters. 

Heading into the game, the quarterback situation was the largest question for Illinois after opening-day starter QB1 Peters suffered a left shoulder injury during Illinois’ matchup against Nebraska last weekend. In that game, backup Artur Sitkowski filled in admirably and, as a result, got the starting nod on Saturday against the Roadrunners of Conference USA. 

The Illini started the game slow, going the entire first quarter without completing a pass. They did little better rushing with only 30 yards, and were able to hold UTSA to only a single touchdown drive. 

Blake Hayes gave the Illini a major boost, punting twice for 54 and 48 yards, respectively, on his two punts in the first quarter. The punts placed UTSA on their own 4- and 6-yard line, respectively, and made it considerably harder for them to march down the field.

In the second quarter, both teams came alive, with UTSA jumping ahead early via a drive highlighted by a 25-yard catch by receiver Zakhari Franklin to put them on the 11-yard line in place to score.

However, the Illini started to show signs of life after falling behind 14-0 when Sitkowski connected with Deuce Spann for a 31-yard touchdown pass. UTSA quickly countered with a field goal fueled by Franklin catches and a pass interference call.

Illinois, however, quickly put together another touchdown drive fueled by big plays, including a crucial third down 14-yard rush by Sitkowski, a 24-yard pass from Sitkowski to Isaiah Williams and a 14-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Barker.

After stopping the UTSA offense without yielding a first down, the Illini muffed the ball on the punt, and the Roadrunners recovered it, placing them on the Illinois 26-yard line and gifting UTSA with the setup for a field goal. Illinois went into the half trailing 20-14. 

The Illini were stifled on their first drive of the second half but recovered a fumble at the UTSA 36-yard line. While Illinois couldn’t move the ball far down field, James McCourt nailed a 52-yard field goal and pulled the score within 3. 

On UTSA’s next drive, the Roadrunners were slowed as the crowd became a factor, with cheers being heard after every stop by Illinois. Just when the game may have flipped in the Illini’s favor, the UTSA defense stopped Illinois from logging a first down. The UTSA offense proceeded to pick apart the defense en route to a field goal to go up 23-17. 

McCourt opened the fourth quarter with an impressive 53-yard field goal, his second from beyond 50 yards on the day. The score set the program record for most 50+ yard career field goals with six. 

“(McCourt) obviously is a special player,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “Just a battery of a field goal. The protection of it was very impressive.”

UTSA proceeded to extend its lead to 30-20 on a touchdown drive, with a key play being a 43-yard connection between Frank Harris and De’Corian Clark. 

Illinois battled back on their next drive, with Sitkowki connecting to Barker on a 27-yard pass and a 15-yard targeting penalty aiding in a quick series down the field for a touchdown to keep the Illini within striking distance and cutting the deficit to 30-27. 

UTSA slammed the door shut on an Illini comeback after a five-minute drive made up of almost exclusively running plays lead to a touchdown run by Brenden Brady. 

“Defensively, we clearly got fooled on third down,” Bielema said. “That was probably the takeaway of the game. Just put ourselves in third down positions and they kept converting them. That was probably the single most frustrating part. Our guys, they knew the plan. They tried to execute.”

A late James McCourt field cut the deficit to one score, and the Illini got into the red zone late, but the Roadrunners did just enough to secure the Power-5 road win.

“What we learned was the team never gives up until the final whistle,” Hayes said. “It’s tough because you’ve got to flip the perspective. You’ve got to take the loss as something positive, as hard as that sounds. … There’s plenty of decisions that maybe guys want back.”

 

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