CHAMPAIGN — Brandon Peters’ pick-six on Illinois’ opening drive against UConn was a crucible moment for the Illini quarterback.
Sure, the Michigan transfer made some mistakes in the season opener against Akron. But those missed red zone opportunities came in what was easily turning into a 42-3 blowout win against the Zips.
The pick-six? Tyler Coyle reading Peters the whole way, jumping the route and returning Peters’ first interception at Illinois 52 yards for a touchdown had the potential for more damage. It was the beginning of UConn’s 13-0 first quarter lead, raising the pressure on the Illini.
How Peters responded was why Illinois pursued a veteran quarterback on the transfer market this offseason in the first place. Four successful second-quarter drives — and 24 unanswered points later — the Illini had a lead they’d never relinquish en route to a 31-23 win and a 2-0 record going into Saturday’s 11 a.m. home kickoff against Eastern Michigan.
“Brandon will be the first guy that would like to have a few plays back, but think about that scramble for the touchdown,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said about Peters’ second touchdown against UConn. “He did some awful good things, too. Did we expect him to give us that type of play? Yes, and he’ll give us that and more in the future.”
Peters’ poise in leading Illinois’ comeback against UConn was what stood out the most to his coaches and teammates.
“That’s what pro quarterbacks do, and I feel like that’s who he is,” said junior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, who caught two touchdowns against UConn. “To respond like that — 24 unanswered points — that shows me the guy isn’t fazed.”
Imatorbhebhe has played with another quarterback like Peters in terms of their steady approach. That quarterback? Former Southern California quarterback turned New York Jets starter Sam Darnold, who was just as calm under fire and Imatorbhebhe’s teammates for two seasons with the Trojans.
“Apart from his athleticism and ability to sling the ball, I feel like that was one of his best traits,” Imatorbhebhe said of Darnold. “He never got too high in the high moments and never got too low in the low moments. If anything, that sucks for the defense that you’re playing against. It doesn’t matter how much momentum that they have.
“I remember UConn had a lot of momentum. They were feeling really, really good, but when you have somebody like Brandon, who’s able to stay even-keeled, that just allows us to get back into our rhythm. He wasn’t getting discouraged.”
That’s simply Peters’ personality. The Avon, Ind., native is mostly soft-spoken. When he leads, it’s more by example. That showed as he moved past the turnover at UConn to finish the game 24 of 35 for 227 passing yards and four touchdowns.
“I’m definitely glad I got it out of my system,” Peters said of the interception. “I definitely wasn’t very happy with myself at that moment. I just kind of shook it off. I still had basically four quarters of football to play. If you hang onto stuff like that, it’s going to affect you the rest of the game. I guess over the years I’ve just learned to let mistakes like that go.”
Peters said he’s starting to feel more comfortable running Rod Smith’s offense each game. What Peters can do in the passing game has also opened up the type of plays the Illini offensive coordinator can call.
“Brandon can throw the ball with the best of them,” Rod Smith said. “He allows you to have a little bit more freedom to push the ball down the field. The more balls he continues to complete, the more I see him dissecting defenses and understanding exactly what’s going with them and him breaking things down, the more comfortable I get as far as what I can put on his plate.”
That led to Peters’ efficient second quarter against UConn. He recognized what the Huskies were doing defensively — more Cover 3 than the Cover 2 the Illini expected — and adjusted.
“He was seeing the field well, he was reading his keys well and he was on the same page as his wideouts,” Rod Smith said. “He had great protection up front. All that plays a part. I said that a long time ago.
“It’s never just one guy in the passing game. You’ve got to get good protection, you have to have precise route-running and the quarterback has to be on point. When you get all three working together, your passing attack starts to take off a little bit.”