Illini to make offensive adjustments after loss

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Illinois Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith poses for a promotional photo. Smith hopes to involve running backs Mike Epstein and Chase Brown more in coming games.

By Josh Pietsch, Staff Writer

Friday night’s 38-point loss at Wisconsin was full of chaos for the Illini, and a veteran offense that expects high production was nearly invisible. 

They fumbled on the second offensive play of the night, recorded just 87 passing yards, went 0-for-3 on fourth down and were unable to put any points on the board against the Badger defense. 

Wisconsin looked more talented and motivated and straight-up outplayed the Illini. Despite the advantage in natural talent and higher recruits, there were a lot of things Illinois could have done to prevent what was a brutal beatdown in Madison, and they have already begun preparing themselves to be better in the future.

“Disappointing game, you assume you’re in a different place going into the season. … Thought we were more prepared to play a better football game than we did,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “We have to be further along than that. … We won’t continue to play football like that. We’re better than that.”

An offense with a second-year starting quarterback and returning pieces in the backfield, receiver and offensive line positions was not expecting to get shut out to open the season. Despite what felt like a good week of practice leading up to the game, Illinois finished with just 218 yards of offense and couldn’t add a point to the scoreboard.

The Illini struggled in key moments throughout the whole game, and offensive coordinator Rod Smith said everyone involved needs to be better moving forward.

“It’s obvious, we didn’t play good as a whole,” Smith said. “None of us coached well enough, we didn’t play well enough. I mean, it’s disappointing how we lost our fundamentals that we’d been really working on, so that’s stuff that as a coaching staff and myself we gotta get corrected.”

Only five players had receptions for Illinois, with notable receivers such as Luke Ford and Casey Washington finishing without a catch. Josh Imatorbhebhe lead the team in receptions with three but was targeted 10 times. Rod Smith said everyone available can get the ball and there are things that could have gone differently Friday night. 

“Obviously there’s some decisions we’d like to have back,” Smith said. “Do we wanna get (the ball) spread around? Absolutely you do. You wanna try and be as fluid with that in terms of who’s touching the ball. … Every available receiver that’s out there, tight end, running back, wide receiver no matter who it is, is always a target.” 

Senior quarterback Brandon Peters completed just eight of his 19 passes, but one of the few bright spots in the offense was his ability to effectively run the ball for big gains.

Peters was the leading rusher for the Illini, carrying the ball for 75 yards and averaging 10.7 yards per carry. However, junior running back Mike Epstein carried the ball eight times for 36 yards and sophomore Chase Brown had three carries for 12 yards. No one else on the team reached double-digit rushing yards.

Rod Smith liked what he saw out of Peters but admitted he held him back from running the ball even more. Smith wants to use his quarterback more freely in the run game in the future but said getting running backs such as Brown and Epstein to be more effective is something that will be worked on.

“We’ll be better suited this week hopefully moving forward to be able to adjust to it and get (Epstein and Brown) hopefully more involved,” Rod Smith said. “Brandon, I gotta let him play. I gotta let him be himself and if that means he pulls it, tucks it and runs it once in a while so be it. … That was probably me, holding him back a little bit but I just gotta let him play.” 

The Badgers lost their top two defenders from 2019 to the NFL, though their defensive line is still expected to be one of the best in the country. And the way they played on Friday, they look like they can be.

The Illini returned four of five starters from 2019 on the offensive line but still weren’t able to fully handle the Badger D-line. Wisconsin’s line recorded three sacks on the night, forced a fumble and gave Peters limited time to get passes off, disrupting him all game.

Senior center Doug Kramer said he and the rest of the line weren’t happy with the way they played Friday and are going to put pressure on themselves to make corrections from their game against Wisconsin. 

“Execution, technique was not good enough,” Kramer said. “Also on the offensive line, we hold ourselves to a really high standard, and we didn’t play up to that. We have to take ownership of that and it falls on no one else except us. All five of us know we didn’t play well enough, and the only thing we can do now is kinda learn from those mistakes, we came in this morning, had a great morning of film and kinda get back on the grind and try to fix those errors.”

Every aspect of the offense needs to be better with a talented Purdue team coming to town on Saturday, fresh off a win over Iowa. Lovie Smith said that though he’s surprised with his team’s offensive performance from Friday, they’re all ready to get better and that starts with him. 

“They shut us out. We didn’t score any points. You have to start with them,” Lovie Smith said. “After a loss, after a win, you evaluate what you did wrong or what you did right and go back to the practice field and that’s what we’re going to do.

“Did it surprise me that we performed like that? Yes, it did. We won’t continue to play football like that. We’re better than that. We’re a better football team than that. I’m a better coach than that, I gotta get my team ready to go better than that, and I will.” 

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