Player of the game
Illinois defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr.
Illinois vs. the University of Connecticut in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in East Hartford, Conn.
The Southern California graduate transfer has given Illinois a legitimate pass-rushing threat on the edge. Better yet, he’s not just a situational pass rusher. Betiku has anchored the Illini defensive line through two games and finished Saturday’s win with 3 1 / 2 sacks and a fumble recovery.
Brandon Peters bounced back after his opening drive pick-six and finished with new career-highs in passing yards (225) and touchdowns (four) while keeping just enough plays alive with his feet. The Illini run game, though, was stunted missing Mike Epstein (out for the season with a knee injury) and Reggie Corbin (didn’t play after gameday decision because of a hip pointer suffered in Week 1 against Akron).
Consider Saturday’s defensive performance a tale of two sides of the game for Illinois. The Illini locked up the UConn run game — a net 10 yards gained for the Huskies — but freshman quarterback Jack Zergiotis completed 68 percent of his passes for 275 yards. Soft spots remain in Illinois’ coverage.
James McCourt proved why he came out on top in the training camp kicker competition by drilling a 53-yard field goal — with distance to spare — to end the first half. And return wise, Dre Brown was a shoestring tackle away from breaking a 99-yard kick return touchdown. The Huskies were solid, too, with kicker Clayton Harris making all three of his field goals.
The recurring pass coverage issues that have been the same for several seasons come down to scheme. Illinois might not be giving up huge passing plays, but effective quarterbacks (or even a true freshman from Quebec making their first collegiate start in the case of Zergiotis) can pick the Illini apart. Some of the offensive play-calling late (a lot of pass calls) were also a bit questionable.
Was it the type of win Illinois fans wanted against a UConn team that is still arguably the worst team in the American Athletic Conference? No, certainly not. But it was a nonconference win. On the road. For the first time in a dozen years. That’s at least a step in the right direction for a program that simply needs to win more games.