Lovie Smith told me his Illinois football team was better. Then, the Illini proved it Saturday.
Illinois determined before Saturday’s season opener that if it won the coin toss, it was going to take the ball. Fine with Brandon Peters.
Player of the game
Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen
There’s just something about season openers against MAC teams that must get the Illini redshirt junior going. Hansen maybe didn’t hit his tackle total (either behind or beyond the line of scrimmage) from 2018, but he did lead Illinois with seven tackles and had both of the team’s takeaways with a forced fumble and recovery and an interception in the first half.
Lovie Smith is catching himself now when he refers to the Illini as a running team. Seems like Michigan transfer quarterback Brandon Peters has given the Illinois coach pause. Peters was calm and collected in directing the Illinois offense, completing 14 of 23 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns to go with a 20-yard rushing score. Running back depth, meanwhile, helped the Illini weather injuries to Reggie Corbin (hip) and Mike Epstein (knee).
The Illini defense was much maligned in 2018 and for a good reason. They simply struggled to stop anybody. Saturday was different, and the pressure from the defensive line (6 sacks and 12 tackles for loss combined) was a serious difference maker. Akron did have some success in the passing game in the soft spots of the Illinois zone, but none of the catches went for game-breaking plays.
That James McCourt was the winner in the Illini preseason kicker battle was a bit of a surprise, but the redshirt junior out of Parkland, Fla., did connect on all six of his PATs. His only miss came on his lone field goal attempt — a 30-yarder in the first half. The Zips, meanwhile, struggled mightily on special teams, with punter Jonah Wieland coming down with a case of the shanks.
Lovie Smith’s decision to take the ball after winning the pregame coin flip was a power move — and against what has been typical form for the fourth-year coach. That the Illini scored on that opening drive certainly helped. The Illini coach also showed a bit more aggressiveness in his dual role as defensive coordinator, and offensive coordinator Rod Smith put his myriad weapons to use in the ground game while leaning on Peters to spread the ball around through the air.
The Illini needed something positive in their season opener both to hit the reset button from a disappointing 2018 season and live up to some of the “need wins now” expectations that have come in Lovie Smith’s fourth season. Maybe a 39-point home victory against the Zips will draw more fans to Memorial Stadium for the Sept. 14 game against Eastern Michigan than the announced crowd of 30,654 on Saturday.