Illini able to recover from early complications to achieve recent success

Senior+kicker+James+Mccourt+kicks+a+field+goal+during+the+game+against+Nebraska+on+Saturday.

Photo Courtesy of John Peterson/Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior kicker James Mccourt kicks a field goal during the game against Nebraska on Saturday.

By Josh Pietsch, Staff Writer

Illinois started the football season with an 0-3 record, straight off a blowout home loss and on pace to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten. The coronavirus had hit the team, and both sides of the ball weren’t performing at the level they’d hoped.

Lovie Smith and the Illini came into this season with high expectations. Smith repeatedly said that this was the best football team he’d coached in his five years so far as head coach and that there was a lot to be excited about. After three games, however, that looked not to be true.

Coming into the year most national media outlets predicted Illinois to finish the season at the bottom of the Big Ten West and sit around a 1-8 or 2-7 record, but some local sites such as Illini Inquirer assumed a near .500 record after this shortened, conference-only season. After Illinois’ 41-14 home loss to an unproven Minnesota team, the national outlets looked far more accurate, and the Illini were on pace to go finish 2020 winless.

The 0-3 start could have happened without any absences, but double-digit players missing multiple games due to coronavirus complications affected the team more than expected.

Illinois began the season at full strength but lost 45-7 at Wisconsin, who was ranked No. 14 in the initial AP rankings. This met the expectations of neither the players nor the coaches of the Illini, but it is widely known among college football that Camp Randall Stadium is tough to play in and that the Badgers are one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

“You don’t play your best ball normally Week 1,” Smith said. “Normally what you would like to see from your team is them getting better each week. We didn’t play well Week 1.” 

And then COVID-19 hit the Illini.

Rumors flew around social media all week about Illinois players contracting the coronavirus after Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz reportedly tested positive after playing the Illini. And just an hour before their home opener against Purdue, the team announced two positive tests.

Senior quarterback Brandon Peters and redshirt freshman tight end Griffin Moore had each tested positive for the virus, forcing a 21-day absence due to Big Ten protocols.

In addition, at least eight players had to miss 10 days of action due to contact tracing, including senior center Doug Kramer, senior kicker James McCourt and redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams. 

The Illini were short-handed and without at least four key players for multiple games, which proved to be a factor in their next two games.

Down to their fourth-string quarterback after only one drive, the Illini turned the ball over six times and lost by a touchdown at home to Purdue, followed by a home loss the next week to Minnesota which Smith described as a “terrible performance.”

Smith and his team received lots of criticism after starting the season 0-3, even with at least 10 players missing. Regardless, the team seemed out of sorts and nowhere near the level they expected to be performing at before the season started.

And then players began to return.

All players other than Peters and Moore were able to resume team activities after their 10-day absence, immediately providing a spark to the team.

Kramer, known as one of the most important leaders and one of the most talented players on the team, would provide much-needed help.

“Doug brings so much more,” Smith said. “Two-time captain, it all starts with him. One of the toughest guys on our team, a vocal leader, there’s an awful lot we missed from (him).” 

McCourt is another senior who was forced to miss time and whom the coaches missed having. He is considered by his players and coaches as one of the more talented kickers in the conference and gives his team more opportunities to get points on the board. 

“We think he’s one of the better kickers in the Big Ten, I mean he’s got a great leg, have tons of confidence (in him),” offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “We know if we get the ball around the 35-yard line he’s in range. It’s a great position to have in terms of knowing his strength.”

Williams was the other most important piece to get back, as he is the team’s second-string quarterback and would start if Peters were unavailable. The redshirt freshman was a top-300 recruit out of high school, and though he hadn’t made a real impact for the team yet, was expected to be a special piece for the team.

Those three players, among at least seven others, returned to the team to play against Rutgers. The Illini were touchdown underdogs on the road, but came out of Piscataway, New Jersey, with a 23-20 win.

All three key players made major impacts.

Williams started the game at quarterback and broke the school record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback and led his team down the field on a crucial drive late in the fourth quarter.

Kramer started at center, allowing other players to go back to their normal positions, and blocked well all game. He and the rest of the offensive line led the way for Illinois to record 342 rushing yards on the day.

McCourt made three field goals against Rutgers, including a 47-yard kick to give his team the lead with just three seconds left, securing the comeback victory for the Illini.

“Now that we’re getting guys back a little bit, I think we can get into more of what we thought we would look like when we initially started the season,” Lovie said after the win over Rutgers. “Getting all the players back, when we started the season, we wanted this group together and, for the most part, we have most of them back right now.”

Illinois still had two players to get back, though, one being arguably the most important man on the field.

Peters and Moore began practicing with the team the week before the Illini traveled to Nebraska for their fifth game of the season. Peters, who has started every game when healthy since coming to Champaign in 2019, was finally back as the starting quarterback.

The Illini were faced with a couple of injuries, but for the most part were at full strength for the first time against Nebraska since playing Wisconsin. Despite this, the Illini were over two-touchdown underdogs. 

The spread didn’t seem unrealistic either. Illinois’ only win of the year came against Rutgers who, though improving, was also projected to finish near the bottom of the conference. The offense hadn’t exceeded 24 points in a game and the defense hadn’t held a team under 31 points before Rutgers, even without being affected by the coronavirus.

Illinois clearly didn’t care about what people had predicted for the outcome to be.

Peters and the Illini came out and dominated the Cornhuskers from the beginning. Three takeaways and 28 points in the first half alone allowed Illinois to take a comfortable lead early, and the team came out of Lincoln with a 41-23 victory. 

Peters threw for over 200 yards and had a touchdown through the air and on the ground.

“I can tell you right now, Brandon’s our starting quarterback,” Lovie said. “Starting quarterback is important to our success. It’s kind of simple as that. When you have your starting quarterback healthy and he plays, I kinda know what we’re gonna get from him … Brandon did play well, played a good football (game), and that’s what we expected from him.” 

For multiple reasons the win over Nebraska is the best that each side of the ball has looked since the season started.

Lovie said that it wasn’t just the coronavirus absences that hurt the team, but there was still a lot for them to work on at the beginning of the season. 

“We got everyone back last week and we played better,” Lovie said. “What we’ve done is continue to correct the mistakes, continue to work hard, and we played better.”

One of the corrections that impacted this past week’s success was the proper use of the run game. 

Against Wisconsin in Week 1, the running duo of redshirt sophomore Chase Brown and senior Mike Epstein combined for 48 rushing yards and no scores. After three weeks of improvement and both players having big moments, both Brown and Epstein ran for over 100 yards and combined for three touchdowns against Nebraska. 

“The biggest change we’ve seen is that we became more consistent … We’ve gotten things cleaned up which has extremely helped,” Rod said. “(They’ve) looked at what they’ve done wrong and looked to the coaching, which allowed us to get them right … Chase has gotten more reps, Mike’s been getting more reps, when they start getting more reps and they become more comfortable with what we’re things and see a lot better, good results will follow.” 

The defense has also had time to improve what they do best: turnovers. Players on the defense have repeatedly said that their goal is at least three turnovers a game, which wasn’t achieved until they hit that number against Rutgers. At Nebraska, they forced five. 

With everyone recovered from COVID-19 and no new cases on the team, the Illini will once again be near full strength this Saturday. 

The Illini look like a totally different team than they did just a few weeks ago against Minnesota and are starting to prove to people why the expectations for their team were so high before the season began. They’re celebrating and even trash-talking their opponents and have gained momentum and newfound confidence to finish the season.

“If there’s a belief, if there’s a trust factor, if there’s a confidence trait within your team that’s high and there’s a brotherhood, the guys are gonna fight for each other and great things could happen,” Rod said. “When our guys are together, they can move mountains.”

@JPietsch14

[email protected]