MADISON, Wis. — Illinois put together a package of plays for Isaiah Williams going into Friday night’s game at No. 14 Wisconsin.
The redshirt freshman quarterback had shown enough in training camp and practice the last month-plus to earn an opportunity in the coaching staff’s opinion.
The first run at a split between returning starter Brandon Peters (who still got the bulk of the snaps) and Williams, though, got off to a rather rocky start. Neither was overly efficient or consistent against the Badgers.
That showed in some rather clear ways. Wisconsin dominated the time of possession — and on the scoreboard — and the Illinois offense didn’t actually score in a 45-7 loss to the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium.
Peters knew Williams would get some snaps in the season opener.
The exact split of the snaps, though, still surprised the Avon, Ind., native.
“The amount that he was in caught me a little off guard,” Peters said. “Coming into the game, it was only supposed to be three or four plays. Like I said, you’ve got to do what the coaches want and roll with the punches.”
Peters did acknowledge how the Illinois coaches split the snaps at quarterback was at their discretion.
“They do what they feel like they have to do,” he continued. “Personally, it’s tough sometimes to get into a rhythm when you get thrown in there on fourth-and-two and you haven’t been in there the whole drive. That’s tough. You’ve got to do what the coaches expect and do what they want. I was just going with the flow.”
Peters struggled to find a rhythm even when he got the ball at the start of drives. While he rushed seven times for 75 yards — including runs of 30 and 31 yards — he completed just 8 of 19 passes for 87 yards.
“We just never got in a rhythm with our passing game,” Smith said. “The running game can help that a lot. As we go forward, we’ve got to be able to complete more passes than that. Simple as that.
“Brandon would be the first guy to tell you we’d like to get some throws back. I thought he ran the ball well, but we weren’t in sync for whatever reason.”
Williams had one rush for five yards. The only pass caught of the three he threw wound up in the hands of Wisconsin safety Titus Toler for an interception.
“Isaiah’s done some good things in practice,” Smith said. “You know, the first game, you kind of want to see what you have. Going in we had a package designed just for him. The plan was for him to play no matter how the game was going. The plan was for him to get a few reps in that package.
“When nothing’s going right, it’s just kind of tough duty when you come in like that. First bit of action for him, that’s a start.”
Last year’s leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe was targeted 10 times Friday night and caught three passes for 26 yards. Only tight end Daniel Barker, with three, had more than a single target. Peters looked to Imatorbhebhe early — and clearly often.
“I was just throwing to where my reads took me,” Peters said. “I don’t drop back and just look for one guy. The guys that I found in the second half were the guys that got open.”
Offensive execution — or lack thereof — was both Peters’ and Smith’s takeaway Friday night. That was never more clear than in Illinois’ struggles on third and fourth down. The Illini converted just two of their 10 third down opportunities and put up an 0-fer in three cracks by the offense at fourth down.
“We had a lot of errors,” Peters said. “We shot ourselves in the foot with not converting on fourth down and penalties as well. We’ve got to stay ahead of the chains. We’ve got to move the chains. If you look at the time of possession, they killed us. It was bad. We’ve got to focus on moving the chains, getting the first downs and executing. All those little things.”
Wisconsin’s early 14-0 lead — and the Badges’ growing lead as the game progressed — was the onus for Illinois going for it multiple times on fourth down. Smith said a more aggressive approach was warranted in what he considered favorable situations.
“I thought they were manageable fourth downs,” Smith said. “We were just off a little. That’s how we were most of the night — off just a little bit, just enough to get beat.”