Steve and the NG sports writers discuss the weekend's games and talk to Illini Associate A.D. Marty Kaufmann.
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois starting quarterback Brandon Peters took several hard shots during Saturday’s home loss to Eastern Michigan. The kind where fans shout, “Oooh” and you wonder, “Is he going to be OK to play?”
Fortunately for Peters and the Illini, the quarterback brushed himself off each time and went back to work.
But what if he couldn’t continue? What is Plan B for Illinois?
At one point, freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams started throwing passes on the sidelines Saturday. But that wasn’t at the direction of offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
“I didn’t tell him to warm up,” Smith said on Monday afternoon.
Smith figured Peters would be able to keep playing and he was right.
“I knew he’d be OK,” Smith said.
After a sluggish middle two quarters, Peters finished strong. He led the Illini on consecutive scoring drives in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 31. The Eagles drove for a winning field goal in the final two minutes as the Illini offense waited for another chance. That never came.
The offense scored 31 points, which would normally be enough to win a game. But not Saturday.
The offense, though, is partly to blame for the Illini not opening up 3-0 by going two quarters without scoring against the Eagles.
“Very frustrating for me,” Smith said. “Part of it was my fault. I got out of rhythm a little bit because we got behind the chains so much. I just felt like we were second-and-long, third-and-long because of penalties.
“I probably forced some things in that second and third quarters that I probably shouldn’t have.”
Smith talked to the offense about the problems on Monday.
“I told them, ‘We are our own worst enemy right now. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties, turnovers, taking sacks,’” Smith said. “Those are things we’ve got to get cleaned up this week.”
It’s a mystery
Reporters have asked a few times about the Illinois backup quarterback. The coaches are keeping the information to themselves.
Peters, who is in the quarterback room every day, isn’t sure who is No. 2.
“I don’t know,” Peters said. “I think (Smith) is ready to play either of them.”
During practices, the staff tries to get everyone ready. As the starter, Peters gets the most work. But Williams and redshirt freshman Matt Robinson are busy, too.
Let’s say Peters has to leave the game because his helmet pops off. Or his shoe laces come untied. Or his jersey gets ripped.
Would Peters be comfortable with his replacement?
“No doubt,” he said. “For sure.”
Peters has watched Smith prepare the backups. It’s tough love.
“From my perspective, Rod is really hard on Matt and Isaiah because he really cares about them and their progress as quarterbacks,” Peters said. “Being young guys, I feel like you kind of want your offensive coordinator to be on you like that. They’re fine with it.”
Peters understands what it’s like to be on the bench as a backup. He redshirted his freshman season at Michigan in 2016 and opened 2017 as a reserve. He moved into the starting lineup later that season before finding himself on the sidelines again in 2018.
At Illinois, Williams, Robinson and redshirt freshman Coran Taylor are following the same path as Peters.
The quarterbacks are listening to Peters. They should. He’s the only one on the team to start for two Big Ten schools.
“I think they believe in me as a player and as someone they can learn from and take little things from,” Peters said.
One reason the Illini coaches wanted to add the graduate transfer was the experience he brings to the quarterback room. The junior is working with two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman.
How are they doing?
“Isaiah should be ready at any point and so should Matt,” Peters said. “I think those guys are doing really well. I think they really care. They’ve honed in on their craft.
“My biggest thing to them is just, ‘Watch what I do. Learn from me.’ Even when Coach Rod is talking to me about something, they should be listening and writing stuff down.”
At Michigan, it took Peters time to grasp the responsibilities of the position.
“It’s definitely a process of maturing,” he said. “I think it took me probably halfway through the year.”
He remembers then-Michigan offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch getting after him.
“He really shed a light for me that, ‘Hey, you’re not playing right now, but don’t take any reps for granted.’
“I was doing scout team. I was like, ‘This actually makes sense. I’m going against the first defense. I can learn a lot from this.’”
Peters realizes it isn’t easy to be a backup.
“You know you could be out there making those plays,” Peters said, “and you’re confident in yourself that you could do that.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.