College/Prep Sports Reporter
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).
CHAMPAIGN — Matt Robinson started his second career game on Saturday against Northwestern with Brandon Peters unavailable after he was knocked out of last week’s game at Iowa.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith’s postgame evaluation of his redshirt freshman backup quarterback wasn’t any different than the rest of the Illini after the Wildcats easily won 29-10 at Memorial Stadium.
“I think Matt played the way we all played,” Smith said. “Nobody did their job (Saturday). Matt, of course, was a part of that. It’s tough duty when they dominate the line of scrimmage.”
Robinson completed 8 of 17 passes for 108 yards. He also took three sacks and finished with minus-11 yards rushing on eight carries.
“We’ve just got to correct the things that we weren’t able to execute,” Robinson said. “Watch it on film and see where we went wrong. They weren’t really doing too much. I think we just weren’t executing.”
Smith eventually switched quarterbacks, with Isaiah Williams played the final two drives in the fourth quarter. The true freshman out of St. Louis fumbled on his first series and threw an interception on his second series.
“Throughout the day you’re thinking about, ‘Is there a better option?’” Smith said. “We ultimately went with what we thought was our best option.”
Robinson wasn’t the only Illinois offensive player to struggle. The Illini run game accounted for just 14 yards on 26 carries. A slew of three-and-outs helped contribute to a time a time-of-possession battle Northwestern won by nearly 24 minutes.
“I think it’s just a little different with a new quarterback,” Illini senior running back Dre Brown said. “You change your scheme up a little bit. We just could never really get in a rhythm. With the time of possession being really lopsided, it was hard. I think we only had three or four possessions in the first half, which is just really strange. That’s nothing you really want with a backup quarterback. You want to get in a rhythm.”
That’s something Robinson wasn’t afforded.
“We didn’t have too many plays,” Robinson said. “When they have more plays, they’re going to have a better chance of scoring more. It was tough, but we still could have scored better.”
Brown’s 17 yards on five carries were a team high, as Illinois rushed for a season low in yards. The redshirt senior running back also scored the Illini’s only touchdown on a 6-yard run early in the second quarter that gave Illinois what would be its only lead of the game at 7-3.
“First off, to get everybody involved you have to have drives — sustained drives,” Smith said. “We didn’t have that (Saturday). We kept getting behind the eight-ball. It always starts up front — the lines on both sides – and they dominated us both ways.”
With the run game bottled up, Robinson said he should have done more in the passing game. Redshirt senior Caleb Reams led the team with a career-high five catches for 57 yards. Freshman Casey Washington caught four passes for 55 yards.
Reams slid into the starting lineup with Josh Imatorbhebhe one of several Illini unavailable because of injury.
“I thought he stepped up really well missing Bhebhe,” Robinson said of Reams. “He did a great job. I hit him on that first touchdown we had. It was a great catch by him and great route.”
Illinois’ injury report ran 18 deep before Saturday’s game against Northwestern. New players added to the “out for the season” list for the first time this year — officially at least — were wide receiver Edwin Carter and defensive backs James Knight and Dylan Wyatt.
The group that was just out for Saturday’s game included Peters, Imatorbhebhe, linebackers Jake Hansen and Dawson DeGroot, defensive linemen Marc Mondesir and Jamal Woods, defensive back Tony Adams, wide receivers Jordan Holmes and Carlos Sandy and running back Jarkari Norwood.
“We’re concerned, but I think a lot of people have injuries,” Smith said. “Did that help the case (Saturday)? No. Northwestern has guys out, too. We had some key players that were out, but a lot of those key players will get back for the bowl game. We’re going to concentrate on that. Most of those guys will get back.”
Illinois’ offensive line also took a hit during Saturday’s game when redshirt junior center Doug Kramer Jr. went down with an injury in the first half. He didn’t return, causing offensive line coach Bob McClain to shuffle his unit.
Redshirt sophomore Kendrick Green slid over to center, and redshirt junior Jake Cerny filled Green’s spot at left tackle.
“Obviously, it’s terrible,” junior tackle Alex Palczewski said. “Doug’s a hell of a player. Credit to Jake Cerny. He stepped up and played at guard when Kendrick Green went over to center.
“Obviously, it’s different, but that’s the one thing about football. It’s not just one guy. Injuries happen. Coach McClain always prepares us for anything that goes down. Every once in a while he’ll put in someone else just in case something would happen.”
Illinois held Iowa to its second-lowest rushing effort of the season last Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa.
This Saturday was a season-high rushing output from Northwestern. The only thing in the ball park of the 378 yards the Illini allowed to the Wildcats were the 334 a now 1-11 UMass team allowed two weeks ago in Evanston.
“Eventually you have to tackle,” Smith said. “It’s not many plays where we didn’t have somebody in position. We’ve got to do a better job of tackling. Simple as that. A lot of those plays that went for a lot more than they should have.”
That was senior linebacker Dele Harding’s take, too. Northwestern — particularly sophomore quarterback Andrew Marty — had a knack for stretching for an extra yard or two at the end of a play.
Harding, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles, said he was surprised by Illinois’ struggles in run defense.
“We know we’ve just got to be ready — especially in the weather we were handed (Saturday),” Harding said. “We had to wrap up and get them down. Allowing them to fall an extra two and three yards when they were going for it on fourth down, all that stuff matters and adds up.”
While the loss to Northwestern ended Illinois’ regular season, a bowl game is still to come. Where the Illini might wind up is still in question, although there was a representative from the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., in attendance Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“We’re anxious to see, first off, exactly where we’re going,” Smith said. “We’re going to feel bad (Saturday), as we should, then excitement of where we’re going to a bowl game and who all is going with us is the next thing we’ll go through.
“We’re pumped up and excited about going to a bowl game. What and wherever doesn’t really matter to us. We’re going bowling. That will be the positive that we eventually get to.”
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