Northwestern likes, dislikes: Isaiah Williams, Brandon Peters, Chase Brown shine in final game of season

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Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Wide receiver Isaiah Williams embraces a coach during the game against Northwestern on Saturday. The Illini made a series of good plays during the game to bring them to victory.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

It’s hard to believe, but the Illinois football regular season is over in what feels like the blink of an eye. A few months ago, the Bret Bielema experiment was just getting underway, but today we have a season’s worth of results that call for analysis. 

The Illini finished with a sub-.500 record at 5-7, but that doesn’t tell nearly the whole story. Two of those five wins came as shocking road upsets over ranked opponents and four of the losses were within a single score. In a single season, without the chance to recruit many of his own players, Bielema effectively turned a struggling program into a scrappy football team with a fighting chance at beating virtually any opponent (except Wisconsin) that lined up against them. 

Illinois ended their season in pretty much the best way possible: a blowout rivalry win. While Illini players got to party with the Land of Lincoln Trophy, the team quietly entered into the sweepstakes for bowl eligibility on an outside track that would require a variety of fortunate results. 

If Illinois doesn’t make it, they get to end their season on an incredibly satisfying victory. If they do, the Illini get to compete in a bowl game that absolutely nobody expected in year one of Bielema. The situation is about as close to win-win as they come. 

Regardless, I’m back to break down my many likes and few dislikes from the Northwestern game for what might be the last time of the season. 

Likes

Brandon Peters riding off into the sunset

Maybe it’s not quite a sunset that Peters is riding off into, but I’d like to think BP will spend the rest of his life looking back fondly on this final four game stretch as the best of his career. It’s not Heisman or even All-Big Ten level play, but it was good. As desperate as that might sound, the Illini have been dying to get good, better than average, just plain serviceable quarterback play for a while. 

In Peters’ time with the Illini, watching him play seemed a bit like eating forbidden fruit. The highs were high, with his cannon of an arm connecting on deep plays to put the Illini in places few others could. But the lows were even lower and more often, with Peters throwing inexplicable passes that commonly found other teams’ hands. I’d be lying to say I hadn’t pondered if I could do a better job under center in those moments. 

But believing in Peters is addictive. For as many mistakes as he makes, he does just enough to inspire belief in him. Think about the game-opening touchdown drive he had against Iowa last week. He looked unstoppable! Or the game-winning two-point conversion against Penn State. In that moment, nobody was thinking about all the bone-headed decisions from earlier in the season. 

By mid-season, the book had pretty much been closed on how we’d view Peters’ career with the Illini (not well). In his final month at Illinois, Peters took matters into his own hands and wrote one final chapter that might be looked upon more fondly. And in what likely stands as his final game as an Illini, Peters came out and teased us with his sky-high potential one last time. 

On the day, he went 14-23 for one touchdown and an interception and 242 yards. The statline might not jump off the paper, but it hardly tells the full story of the 47-14 blowout. Peters had five passes over 20 yards on Saturday, tying a season-best. One of those was a season-longest 56-yard bomb to Casey Washington that helped put the game solidly out of reach of the Wildcats before halftime even hit. 

Peters even had his highest yardage of the season with his legs, racking up 26 rushing yards and two first downs. There’s no doubt that Brandon Peters left it all on the field in his last game at Memorial Stadium. Now, he can rest easy and spend the rest of his days laying on beaches and sipping piña coladas or whatever starting quarterbacks do after college. 

Here’s to the most frustrating, exciting, timid, exhilarating, inconsistent, gun-slinging, poor-decision making and improved quarterback I’ve ever seen. 

Isaiah Williams’ out of body game

Williams had his best game by far as an Illini. He had seven catches, good for 113 yards and a receiving touchdown. But that wasn’t all for Williams who also executed on a reverse that led to an easy 21-yard touchdown rush. 

Williams was billed as the team’s shiny new WR1 after he switched positions heading into the season, but his production has been inconsistent. Part of that is probably a result of Illinois’ inconsistent quarterback situation, but after 12 weeks, Williams is finally starting to look the part. He ended the season about as well as he could, leaving the major question going forward to be if he can develop chemistry with a new quarterback next season.  

Other-worldly forces

There were two points in the game where Illinois benefitted on a major play they didn’t necessarily cause. Early on, Northwestern quarterback Andrew Marty set up in the pocket like any old pass play. He wound up to pass, and even made that same throwing motion that every quarterback is taught as a kid. But instead of the ball traveling out of his hand and toward a pass-catcher, it fell backwards.

I’ve watched the play back more times than I’d like to admit, and the only explanation I’m willing to entertain is supernatural forces being at play. Marty didn’t exactly drop the ball, but he certainly didn’t throw it either. The play resulted in an Isaiah Gay fumble recovery that put Illinois on the Northwestern 8-yard line, and that’s what matters. 

The second odd play was a sack on Ryan Hilinski in which Hilinski tripped over his own lineman. This one at least looked like a silly mistake in the heat of a blowout, but I’m not ruling anything out. 

Chase Brown, the hardest runner Doug Kramer has ever seen

It feels like I’m talking about Chase Brown every week, and this week is no different. On Saturday, he surpassed the 1000 rushing yard mark this season, a major accomplishment for him and the offense. He had 112 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, marking elite efficiency. 

What’s even more surprising is that this wasn’t even Brown’s most efficient game this year. Against Charlotte, he had an eye-popping 257 rushing yards on 26 attempts, averaging almost 10 yards per carry. After the game, offensive lineman Doug Kramer really did say that Brown was the hardest runner he’s ever seen, and I’m inclined to believe him after Brown’s absolute tear this season. 

Illinois will miss Blake Hayes when he’s gone

Blake Hayes remains the most underrated part of this team. Hayes is possibly the best punter in the country, and the lack of discussion about his impact speaks to just how underappreciated his production has been. On Saturday, Hayes broke his own single-season record for punts within the 20-yard line with 33. At this point, Hayes has most of the Illinois punting records and will likely go down as the best punter in school history. 

Mike Epstein and Jake Hansen getting a special moment

Leave it to Bielema to engineer the most wholesome moment of the entire season on its last down of football. Hansen and Epstein both were starters that went down early in the year with season-ending injuries, so Bielema had them take the field to be a part of the victory formation as the Illini took a knee on their last play to seal the victory. 

There’s no doubt everyone involved loved the moment. According to Bielema, it was Hansen’s idea. No matter where it came from, it’s the type of decision that builds camaraderie and trust within a locker room. One of Bielema’s mantras this season has been “family,” and this call more than backed it up. 

Dislikes

You thought there were dislikes?

I could nitpick. I could point out Peters’ interception. I could complain about the Illini only scoring 10 second half points or about a million other small things. There is no such thing as a perfect football game, but the Northwestern game is about as close as one could really expect from this Illinois team. This Illini have come a long way from the group that got blown out at Virginia early in the season, and for it, they’ve earned the privilege of receiving no dislikes from me for the first time this season.  

And with that, Illinois most likely enters the offseason. This Illini had all the markings of a doomed team: a new head coach taking over a struggling program with virtually no players he recruited, an unexpected quarterback controversy with both participants taking turns playing poorly and getting hurt and a grueling schedule. Given his poor hand, I’d say Bielema overachieved massively to even get to 5-7. 

With double digit super seniors departing from the roster, there’s no doubt this team will look much different next year. Bielema came to Illinois with the pitch that he’d recruit the state of Illinois better than Lovie Smith. Now it’s time for him to prove it. 

 

@WesHollenberg

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