Illinois football’s offense struggles to build momentum against Iowa after stellar opening drive

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Photo Courtesy of David Craan/Illini Athletics

Wide Receiver Isaiah Williams sprints past an Iowa defender during the game at Kinnick Stadium yesterday. Illinois struggles to gain momentum against Iowa after their strong start.

By Will Payne, Assistant Sports Editor

Coming into Saturday’s matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes, there was an odd amount of positivity surrounding Illinois’ chances to come out with a victory. 

On the surface, the Illini were entering a hostile Kinnick Stadium to face off against the No. 18 ranked team in the country, one we had not defeated in our previous eight matchups. Along with all those harsh realities, Illini head coach Bret Bielema would not be on the sidelines, as he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week.

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This positivity stemmed from the fact that Illinois have been no stranger to knocking off ranked Big Ten foes on the road this year. Penn State and Minnesota both suffered brutal losses at the hands of Illinois, and it seemed as though Iowa might be next up early on in the first quarter.

It’s no mystery that Illinois’ biggest problem this season has been their lack of consistent quarterback play. Brandon Peters and Artur Sitkowski have struggled to find receivers down field and put Illinois in scoring positions. Big performances from Chase Brown and Josh McCray have oftentimes served as paper over the cracks for the lackluster play from under center.

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    However, during the first drive, the Illini faithful watched a well-oiled machine drive down the field and find the end zone. Peters was the engine of this offense, going 6-7 with 68, eventually finding Luke Ford with a 13-yard touchdown pass.

    Assistant head coach/wide receivers coach George McDonald stepped in for Bielema this weekend, and he was pleased with how Peters and the rest of the offense set the tone on the first drive. 

    “That was one of the things we have been trying to work on since the bye week, going and getting some points early,” McDonald said. “Tony Petersen did a great job of putting together the game plan, and the guys did an excellent job of executing it. Brandon was on target, guys made plays and we were able to be balanced.”

    When Iowa botched a punt snap, and Illinois eventually went up 10-0, it seemed as though everything was coming into place for another Illini upset. Sadly, Illinois came back down to earth quickly as Iowa returned a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown, which kicked off a 17-0 Hawkeye run. 

    Although Illinois kept the game close the entire afternoon, the last meaningful throw for Peters came in the fourth quarter down 10. Though the Illini’s chances of victory were slim at the moment, any sense of hope was immediately gone when Peters threw a pick-6 with time winding down in the fourth quarter.

    After a late touchdown pass to Isaiah Williams, Peters ended the day throwing 16/36 with 248 passing yards, two touchdown passes and two interceptions. Despite these numbers not being eye-popping, this was certainly the fifth-year senior’s best game of the season.

    Neither Brown or McCray found the end zone for Illinois on Saturday, which does not occur often for the Illini based on their run-heavy offense. Coach McDonald detailed how he wanted to run with Peters throwing the ball more today, and he gave credit to the Hawkeyes doing their homework.

    “We have to give credit to Iowa,” McDonald said. “They tried to make us play one handed, and they tried to stop the run. We always want to try and establish the run, but at the end of the day, we have to go with what’s helping us move the ball, and the pass game got us going this week.”

    Peters and the rest of the Illinois offense will get one more crack at it next weekend, as they welcome the Northwestern Wildcats to Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

     

    @WillPayne33

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