Jeff George Jr. showing toughness in the pocket

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Austin Yattoni

Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. (3) throws a pass during the first half of the game against Minnesota at Memorial Stadium on Saturday October 29. The Illini are losing 14-7 at half.

By Joey Figueroa , Staff writer

Following Saturday’s 40-17 loss to Minnesota, Jeff George Jr., wearing multiple gold chains over his white sweatshirt, addressed the media. 

He certainly had the look of a starting quarterback, taking after his father’s rockstar, gunslinger image of the late 90s. But there were no tones of braggadocio in the redshirt-freshman’s voice when he talked about his performance.

“It was hard,” George said. “I felt like I made a lot of mistakes and let a lot of people down.”

On paper, George’s Saturday stat line is impressive for a third-string quarterback making his second career start in front of a high-intensity Homecoming crowd. He completed 16 of his 34 passes, piling up 156 yards and a touchdown to Zach Grant — it was the senior receiver’s first career touchdown catch.

It was a performance far different from his four-completion stat line against Michigan the week prior. 

But George will be the first to say that turnovers hurt his cause. He lost two fumbles — one on Illinois’ first offensive snap of the game — and was taken down in the end zone for a safety. 

“Those turnovers are what gave (the Gophers) the short field and made it easy on them,” George said. “I’ve got to protect the ball at all costs.”

Part of George’s turnover issues could be attributed to the large amount of duress he’s been under throughout his two starts. In Michigan, he was hit four times and sacked once, and against Minnesota, he was hit seven times and sacked twice. 

“Jeff did some things better than he did the week before,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “He was under a lot of pressure.”

One of those Minnesota hits caused George’s helmet to fly off his head as he collided with the ground.

That didn’t keep him from getting right back up though.

“Jeff’s tough, man,” redshirt-freshman running back Reggie Corbin said. “You see the hits he took — I’m right beside him, so I see it and I hear it. He’s a tough guy, and I’m proud of him. He kept firing away; he never shied away from the pressure.”

In a game that saw junior receiver Malik Turner crumble to the field after a big hit, seeing George’s helmet pop off stuck in Nick Allegretti’s mind. The sophomore offensive lineman was critical of his unit’s inability to keep the pressure off his quarterback. 

“He shouldn’t be taking those hits,” Allegretti said. “To see a kid get hit like that and his helmet knocked off sucks because it’s on us. But he got up, and you know he’s playing for us, and that’s something the O-line needs to see. We’ve got to block better for him.”

George’s teammates have taken a liking to George for his confidence and composure in the huddle since he was forced to fill in for injured quarterbacks Wes Lunt and Chayce Crouch.

Smith announced Saturday that Crouch underwent season-ending surgery, and Lunt’s status is still unclear, so George could be given ample opportunities to prove himself moving forward. 

The rest of the team has already noticed improvement in George’s game.

“He’s more comfortable and more confident for sure,” Grant said. “He made some throws out there today so he’s growing. To start in the Big House and then be right back for Homecoming — it’s a tough spot to be in, I’m sure. But he’s handed it great.”

Lunt dressed Saturday but remained on the sidelines with a headset. It’s unclear who will be taking snaps under center against Michigan State, but George is prepared to step out into the spotlight again if need be.

And if he does get another start, George will do his best to clean up his play for his guys.

“The guys are awesome,” George said. “We’ve all got each other’s backs no matter what. Those are my guys.”

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