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Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters runs for 54-yards during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters runs for 54-yards during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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CHAMPAIGN — I was asked earlier in the week: Who is the key player for Illinois football in this Saturday afternoon’s critical game at Michigan State?

It took me no time to answer: Brandon Peters.

The junior quarterback is riding a three-game winning streak going into the 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Spartan Stadium.

During a run that moved the Illini within one win of bowl eligibility, Peters’ contributions have been vital. But his numbers aren’t gaudy.

He has thrown for a combined 320 yards and three touchdowns. That’s a game’s worth for LSU’s Joe Burrow, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.

Peters found other ways to help. Like with his legs. His 54-yard sprint against Rutgers set up the go-ahead touchdown and a 28-0 second-half advantage for the Illini.

Peters has also done a superb job of taking care of the ball. No interceptions in the last three games. The Illini have had one turnover, a fumble against Wisconsin.

For the season, Illinois is fourth nationally in turnover margin. It has lost the ball 10 times, just four on interceptions by Peters.

Oh yes, there have been a few near-misses. Passes that could have been picked off by the Illini opponents, but were instead dropped.

Luck is part of the game. Especially when it comes to creating or avoiding turnovers.

After barely playing at Michigan in 2018, you might have expected Peters to come out slinging this year. Throw the ball into crowds and hope for the best.

He has gone the other direction. Taking his shots when they are there and not forcing passes when they are not.

Style over substance

Why does Illinois need a big game from Peters on Saturday? Go to the statistics.

Illinois averages 163 rushing yards per game and 162.8 passing yards. As balanced as you can get.

Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith will want to attack the most vulnerable part of Michigan State’s defense.

In this case, it will be with the pass. The Spartans are 25th nationally in run defense, allowing 117.1 yards per game. Against the pass, Michigan State is giving up 195.6 yards per game, tied for 33rd in the country.

Of course, Illinois will try to run. That is part of its plan every game. It will also need to pass effectively.

Peters doesn’t need to throw for 227 yards and four TDs like he did earlier this season in a win at UConn. But 175 yards and two scores will take the pressure off Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown and friends.

On the same page

In the five months or so since Peters transferred to Illinois from Michigan, Peters and Smith have developed a strong relationship.

“I think the trust and belief level is there,” Peters said. “I believe in his scheme and everything he does, and he believes in me as a player.”

They laugh together. Smith told Peters a joke on the sideline after his long run.

Peters wouldn’t go into specifics of the line. But ...

“It was funny,” he said.

What has Peters added to the Illini offense?

“Steadiness,” Smith said. “Taking care of the football. He’s making sound decisions.”

Peters is enjoying being back on the field after so much downtime in Ann Arbor. Team success makes it even better.

“Definitely when you’re winning, it’s fun,” he said. “That vibe is there.”

Peters isn’t putting any extra pressure on himself to keep the streak going.

“My mentality never changes,” he said. “I don’t let a single moment or play or game get to me too much. You’ve got to just keep your composure. Yeah, it’s a huge game for us. But at the same time, if you let it get too big for you, you can let it get in your head a little bit. You might not play as fast and as clear as you want to.”

Run, Brandon, Run

Peters’ 54-yard scamper against the Scarlet Knights should have been for 56 yards. And a touchdown. Peters got tripped up at the 2. No biggie, though, because Brown scored on the next play.

The team watched the run together Monday morning.

What was the critique from the rest of the Illini?

“Everyone was like, ‘Man, if you would have stopped looking back, you probably would have fell into the end zone and scored,’” Peters said.

Peters wanted to make sure the ball wouldn’t get popped out from behind. It would have been a bummer to run all that way and then fumble.

Lesson learned.

“Next time, I’ve got some experience now I can use for the future,” Peters said.

Peters has more speed and runs better than he was given credit for. It gives the defense one more thing to think about when the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Peters has the ball in his hands.

“It will keep teams honest,” he said. “It will also pull a defender out of the box, which will help our run game. And also, it’s going to help our pass game as well.”

Peters is going to Michigan State for the second consecutive season. But unlike the 2018 game while at Michigan when he didn’t play, Peters knows he will start.

Michigan and Michigan State are bitter rivals. But Peters didn’t experience it on the field.

“It’s just like a cultural thing.” he said. “It’s hyped up from past experience.”

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).