EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Saturday’s road win didn’t elicit much of a celebration from the Illinois football team.
The Illini — most of them at least — simply filed off of Rentschler Field to their locker room underneath the south end of the stadium.
Sophomore tight end Daniel Barker did give a repeat of his touchdown celebration that drew an excessive celebration penalty in Illinois’ 24-point second quarter. He had sophomore safety Kerby Joseph doing it, too. But that was about it celebration wise.
That the Illini needed that 24-point second quarter to escape out of a 13-0 hole tempered the emotions some. Saturday’s 31-23 win against UConn in front of 23,108 fans wasn’t without its mistakes, but it was the program’s first nonconference road win since 2007 and only third road win for coach Lovie Smith in his three-plus years at Illinois. That made it worth celebrating at least little.
“Absolutely,” Smith said. “I was talking with (redshirt junior linebacker) Jake Hansen on the side and I said, ‘Jake, I’m a little bit older than you. You always celebrate a win. It’s too hard to get a win.’ A lot of times in games like that, you don’t pull them out. It takes an awful lot.
“I think you’re becoming a good football team when you don’t play your best ball, but you find a way to win. We came to UConn and wanted to leave 2-0. What’s our record? Two-and-oh, right? We’re going to feel good.”
Still, the Illini (2-0) also felt like they made too many mistakes. Nine penalties were too many. Two fumbles lost and an interception — a pick six off Brandon Peters on the first offensive drive — was too many. Even taking the ball away from UConn (1-1) three times wasn’t enough in Smith’s opinion.
This Illinois team has set the bar higher for itself.
“We definitely want to make a statement, and we want to hold ourselves to a standard,” junior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe said. The Southern California transfer caught four passes for 42 yards and his first two touchdowns as an Illini and in his college career.
“I don’t really feel like we played our best, but something I like that we did was that we were resilient, we came back and we did get the win,” Imatorbhebhe continued. “At the end of the day, we’re not comfortable. We’re not. We want to blow teams out. We want to dominate. We don’t want to compete. We don’t want it to be close. We don’t want it to be a nail-biter. We want to go out, and we want to win convincingly.”
Imatorbhebhe’s first touchdown catch happened during Illinois’ pivotal second quarter. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound receiver with a 47-inch vertical out-jumped his UConn defender to haul in the nine-yard score after Peters (24 of 35, 227 passing yards, four TDs) scrambled to keep the play alive. Ra’Von Bonner also scored on a 28-yard pass from Peters in the second quarter, and James McCourt closed out the first half by drilling a 53-yard field goal that gave Illinois a 24-13 lead.
Every point ended up being a necessity as Illinois couldn’t turn that breakout second quarter into sustained offense in the second half. It’s how a three-touchdown road favorite won by just eight points.“While we’re talking about being somewhat disappointed is because of that stretch where I thought we had control,” Smith said. “I thought our offense could move the ball down there and score if defensively we just got them the ball. You’ve got to like that, but you’ve got to put together four quarters and we didn’t do that (Saturday).
“We’re not there yet. We know that. It’s why you keep playing the games. We have another big one next week against a good Eastern Michigan team that was a bowl team last year. It will be an even bigger test, of course, next week.”
So Saturday’s win wasn’t all that Illinois wanted. But it was a nonconference road win and now just the third of its kind for the Illini since 2001.
“We came into the week knowing it’s been since ’07,” Dele Harding said, referencing the 41-20 win at Syracuse that year. The senior linebacker tied Nate Hobbs for the team lead with eight tackles and hauled in his first career interception late in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
“It’s been basically a curse or whatnot,” Harding continued. “We’re definitely happy and appreciative that we broke it. We knew we came out a little sloppy, but we just knew we had to hold it together and pay attention to details.
“Just the small things like that added up to the bigger picture in the end, which was the W which we were proud of. It wasn’t the cleanest win, but we’ll definitely get back to the drawing board and take it from there.”
Junior defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. liked what Illinois’ second-quarter comeback and eventual win showed about the team. There was no finger pointing early, even after what he called a “devastating” 52-yard interception return for a touchdown by UConn’s Tyler Coyle to start the game and give UConn an early 7-0 lead.
“It just shows who we are as a team,” Betiku said. “We can’t let diversity define who we are. Sometimes when stuff happens, everybody is pointing fingers — blaming the offense, blaming the defense. We just came together as a team and put that (slow start) behind us.
“A win’s a win to me. That sounds bad, but I’m happy when we win. The harder, the sweeter. Winning is a hard fight, so if you come out with a win, it still feels great. You don’t want to get on the bus going back home or on the plane going back home with an L.”