Illinois vs. Connecticut game notes

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Illinois vs. Connecticut game notes

Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9), scores a touchdown vs Connecticut at Rentshler Field. The Illini Won 31-23.

Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9), scores a touchdown vs Connecticut at Rentshler Field. The Illini Won 31-23.

Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9), scores a touchdown vs Connecticut at Rentshler Field. The Illini Won 31-23.

Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9), scores a touchdown vs Connecticut at Rentshler Field. The Illini Won 31-23.

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

The Illini finally ended their road woes, defeating the Connecticut Huskies 31-23 in a game where momentum swung like a pendulum.

“It’s tough winning on the road,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “We did enough things that could cause you to lose, but at the same time it takes a lot to play through adversity the way we did.”

The Illini got off to an incredibly slow start, but after a second-quarter turnaround sat on a comfortable lead for much of the remainder of the game. The Huskies made a surprise start at quarterback with true freshman Jack Zergiotis. It took time to adjust to the new QB in the first, but soon enough the Illini defense took over, demoralizing the Huskies’ offense with momentum swinging fumbles, forced punts and a late-game interception to seal the game.

A Forgettable First Quarter: F

The offense would like to forget this first quarter as soon as possible. While the defense forced Connecticut to punt on the first possession, the offense got off on the wrong foot immediately. Transfer quarterback Brandon Peters threw a pick-six just before the 11-minute mark in the first. The Huskies scored again on a field goal at the 3:54 mark, just short of getting into the Illini end zone but leaving the possession up 10-0.

Desperate to get on the board before things went further south, Illinois attempted to convert on a fourth and one at midfield but failed to do so. In the subsequent possession, quarterback Jack Zergiotis slowly advanced into field goal range, closing the first quarter out with an opportunity to open up the second with a field goal.

Illinois came into this game as the favorite, but for a moment it appeared the same road struggles which have historically plagued the team in past seasons would dictate the outcome of the game. UConn already tied its previous season’s win total by edging Wagner College 24-21 its season opener and came out of the gates swinging.

The Huskies’ defense set a tone early in the first while the offense took advantage of early miscommunication by the Illini defense to briefly control the momentum. For UConn, the first quarter was a wild success. For Illinois, it was a cathartic beatdown.

Offensive Grade: B-

“A tale of two games” is the best way to describe the offense’s performance for the first quarter when juxtaposed to the rest of the game. After converting the field goal from the end of the first quarter to go up 13-0, the second initially looked like it might’ve been more of the same.

Although things were going south, Illinois was able to quickly turn the tides and increase production. A 26-yard pass to sophomore Daniel Barker from transfer QB Brandon Peters ended up being exactly what the Illini offense needed to get going. Juniors Ra’Von Bonner and Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Barker each scored a touchdown off of a find from Peters for 21 points. Then kicker James McCourt closed out the quarter with a 52-yard field goal in what was a 24-3 second quarter.

Freshman Jakari Norwood had the biggest run of his career starting off the third with a 50-yard rush return. Peters found Imatorbhebhe for his fourth touchdown.

The rest of the second half remained largely inconsistent for the offense. Despite scoring the touchdown early in the third, the Illini spent the rest of the second half playing a lot as they did in the first. As a team, the Illini lost 95 yards in penalties, but because of their turnaround second quarter, Illinois had room to make the errors.

“It’s disappointing to be in a situation like that, but we were down,” Smith said. “From there, it’s about how we respond to the adversity. Turnovers and penalties were killing us, but our guys stepped up.”

Defensive Grade: A-

Akin to the offense, the second quarter was a Renaissance for the Illini defense. Where in the first, Connecticut was able to steadily push the defense back and get into field goal range, the defense allowed nothing outside of the opening field.

After the Illini scored their fourth touchdown, sophomore Jamal Woods recovered a fumble right on the Huskies’ nine-yard line with a little over five minutes left in the third, putting the offense in prime position to score back-to-back (although the Huskies would regain the ball after D.J. Morgan recovered another fumble).

The defense didn’t display the full-scale ferocity they showed in the second quarter for the rest of the game, but they didn’t need to. A string of stalwart sequences in the second period combined with a key forced punt around six minutes and an interception from Dele Harding effectively sealed the game.

“I really liked how we played the run,” Smith said. “We knew UConn made a commitment to running the football, which can make a team one-dimensional. Once you get a team in that position, that’s where you need to seize the moment and I feel like we did that well.”

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