The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

New faces take the reigns, lead Illini to victory

The Illini (1-0) entered week one of the 2023 college football season with expectations that haven’t surrounded the program in over a decade, and they responded with a 30-28 win over the reigning Mid-American Conference champion Toledo Rockets (0-1).

Sophomore quarterback Luke Altmyer dazzled in his debut, passing for 211 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 69 rushing yards. Fellow sophomore Miles Scott led the way on defense in his first major game action for the Illini as well, making big hits and securing a game-changing pick-six. The two made a significant impact in their debut starts, giving the Illini faithful a preview of what to expect this year.

After selling the most season tickets in 15 years, the Illini were joined by a sea of orange under the lights for their largest home opener attendance since 2010. As the pregame smoke and fireworks cleared the air, the Rockets won the coin toss, deferring to the second half.

Altmyer completed all five passes on the opening drive, marching quickly into Toledo territory. The transfer looked crisp, completing several throws on the run. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. kept the defense guessing, with plenty of pre-snap motion, a trend that continued throughout the game.

Sophomore running back Josh McCray punctuated the first drive with a one-yard rush, finding the end zone for the first time in 2023 to take a 7-0 lead. The lead wasn’t seven for long, as the Rockets offense took the field. Aided by a costly third-down penalty from the Illini, talented junior quarterback Dejuan Finn and the Rockets moved inside the Illini ten-yard line before converting a field goal to make it 7-3.

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    The Illini stalled on their next three drives, as they inexplicably abandoned what worked to open the game, putting the ball in Altmyerʼs hands. It was slightly different for the Rockets, who entered Illini territory on their next two drives. The latter ended in a field goal following a 14-play drive, bringing the Illini lead down to one at 7-6.

    Finn used the momentum from a fourth-down stop for his best passing drive of the game in the ensuing possession, marching right down the field for a touchdown. He found star junior receiver Jerjuan Newton — the brother of Illini DL Jer’Zhan Newton — in the endzone with four seconds remaining in the first half to head to the locker room up 12-7.

    The Rockets opened the second half on offense and extended their lead immediately. A drive that took just 3:27 off the clock ended in another touchdown pass for Finn, pushing the lead to 19-7.

    The Illini picked up just two first downs before Altmyer unleashed his first, and only, mistake in Champaign. Searching for McCray downfield, he was unable to beat triple coverage and was intercepted in the red zone.

    It was pretty close to silent in Memorial Stadium for about three plays, until Miles Scott jumped a streak and returned it 48 yards to the house. The momentum shift was evident and began a 20-0 Illini run. Altmyer was poised for the remainder of the game, and Lunney Jr. showed great confidence in him.

    Eleven plays and 55 yards later, Altmyer delivered the ball to junior receiver Pat Bryant in the endzone to make it 20-19 Illini. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Altmyer took the offense downfield again. He found Bryant once more, pulling in a nine-yard grab to make it 27-19.

    “He played really well,” head coach Bret Bielema said of Altmyer. “Thought he played really well and had great confidence…his presence and demeanor the whole game was pretty special.”

    The game of runs continued in the fourth quarter, with the Rockets taking advantage of penalties on two drives. The undisciplined Illini suffered one third-down blunder after another in this one, and the Rockets followed a field goal up with a touchdown to take a 28-27 lead with 2:55 remaining.

    It was up to the offense to take the game on the final drive, and Altmyer came out firing. He converted three passes, including a key fourth down conversion for 33 yards to senior receiver Casey Washinton. The Illini got conservative once they crossed the 30-yard line, only needing a field goal. Senior kicker Caleb Griffin came on to clinch the game and knocked it right down the middle for the win.

    The Illini now go back to work, preparing for their first road game of the season on Saturday. They will travel to Lawrence, Kansas for their first meeting with the Kansas Jayhawks (1-0) since 1968.


    [email protected]

    More to Discover
    About the Contributor
    Ben Fader, Assistant Sports Editor
    Hello, I’m Ben! I’m a junior at Illinois and assistant sports editor at The Daily Illini. I’m majoring in journalism and minoring in communications and recreation, sport and tourism. This is my third year with The Daily Illini, and I can’t wait to produce some amazing work. Feel free to contact me at my email below with questions or concerns, or if you just want to talk sports!