Column | Peters’ legs can lead Illinois football to bowl game

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Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Quarterback Brandon Peters looks to pass the ball during the game against Maryland Sept. 19. Sports columnist Carson Gourdie belives that if Peters uses his legs he can lead Illinois to their second bowl game in three seasons.

If you were to tell me that Illinois would be able to throw for only 33 yards against Penn State but still be able to run the ball and win the game, I would laugh in your face. I would have assumed that having no passing threat against Penn State would lead to another result identical to Wisconsin. 

But Illinois won because Ryan Walters’ defense was flying to the ball and forcing tremendous pressure on Sean Clifford. Walters’ defense accomplished something Lovie Smith could never do: lead the team to victory without winning the turnover battle; Illinois lost it to Penn State, 3-0. But the way Illinois — only having 33 passing yards — played isn’t sustainable. 

Even with the loss of Artur Sitowksi, the legs of Brandon Peters could be the final push into securing a bowl game in Bielema’s inaugural season in Champaign. 

While Illinois loves to run the ball, it’s not like Army or Navy. Those programs run the option, so the ball carrier can be a number of players, which keeps the defense guessing. But Penn State knew who was running the ball against Illinois because they ran only straight handoffs.

While it was effective in moving the chains, without the ability to throw effectively through the air, offenses will run out of steam. Illinois rushed for 350 yards on the ground but only scored one touchdown. In overtime, Illinois was able to also hold Penn State to field goals. 

To get six wins, Peters will have to be the unlikely savior and create an image of being a trailblazer for the Illini program. 

A bowl game is very much in reach for this program. Rutgers, Minnesota and Northwestern don’t have the Wisconsin-style defense to shut down Illinois or the offensive firepower to hold Illinois off like Virginia.

The point of Bielema bringing back 20-plus super seniors was simple: He thought it would give the Illini a shot at six wins. What does a bowl bid mean in Bielema’s first season? It’s giving recruits the image that Bielema is a winner. It gives off the image that, even with Lovie Smith players, Bielema can quickly develop talent. And, quite frankly, after watching Penn State, what offensive lineman wouldn’t want to play for Bielema?

But, let’s be honest, if Illinois only manages 33 passing yards the rest of the year, it will lose out. I’m not sure if Bielema made a deal with the devil for the Penn State game, but the passing game needs to improve. 

Under normal circumstances, Sitkowkski should’ve had three interceptions against Penn State, resulting in another loss. Under normal circumstances, Illinois will be facing a healthy Tanner Morgan and a healthy Spencer Petras, not a banged up Clifford.

I’m not asking Peters to become the second coming of Joe Burrow, but I am asking Peters to play practical and take advantage of his greatest asset: his legs. 

Peters is a big boy, but, quite frankly, he carries some momentum when he runs. During the 2019 season, he had a rush of at least 10 yards in every game aside from Minnesota. Against Iowa, he gained 76 yards on 10 carries. Against California in the Redbox Bowl, he gained 68 yards on eight carries. Against Rutgers, he had a 54-yard run that helped the Illini pull away for a 38-10 victory. 

Peters doesn’t need 250 yards for Illinois to win the game. He merely just has to keep defenses thinking that Illinois is more than Josh McCray and Chase Brown. They have to develop another avenue, because the failure to do so will likely result in a 4-8 season in Champaign. 

Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen called a pretty good game against the Nittany Lions, aside from questionable wide receiver passes, but he needs to make sure that Peters is put into a position where he doesn’t force things to happen. 

Rollout passes with a quick passing game would work wonders for the Illini. If a wideout is open in the flat, trust Peters and let him throw it. If tight end Daniel Barker is open in the post after a play action pass, throw it. If no one is open, let Peters roll it out to let the play develop, and let him scramble for eight yards if he needs to. 

Army and Navy aren’t threats through the air, but it’s unpredictable on who will carry the ball. Illinois needs to adapt the same logic, even if it’s under a pro-style system. 

Illinois is more talented than Rutgers. Illinois’ defense can shut down Morgan if Walters can continue to dial up pressure. Northwestern’s offense is putrid. Six wins is in reach for the Illini. Illinois will be able to force the ball down their throats. All McCray and Brown need is a little extra help making it not as predictable. 

Imagine how exciting a bowl would be for this program. Remember, this team was projected to finish last in the West Division. Bielema has been ripped by the national media for his comments regarding the roster depth. The team blew back-to-back fourth-quarter leads and was shut out in its Homecoming Game.

But it doesn’t matter. 

If Brandon Peters can manage the game, not throw pick sixes and keep defenses honest with his feet, Bielema will be coaching the Lovie Smith-recruited team to its second bowl game in three seasons. It’s that simple. Rutgers isn’t better than Illinois, Minnesota is very human, and Northwestern can’t score. 

So much for how impossible it is to win at Illinois.

 

@GourdieReport

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