The Illinois football team staved off host UConn on Saturday, prevailing 31-23 to earn the program's first road nonconference win since 2007.
Illinois linebacker Dele Harding helped seal the win with a late interception in the fourth quarter while the Huskies (1-1) were driving into Illini territory, before Brandon Peters and the rest of the Illinois offense ran out the clock during the final two minutes.
Peters threw four touchdown passes in his second Illinois start, completing 24 of 35 for 227 yards. He now has seven TD passes on the season for the Illini (2-0) heading into their 11 a.m. game next Saturday against Eastern Michigan (1-0) at Memorial Stadium.
Wole Betiku shone on defense for the Illini, with the Southern Cal transfer defensive end finishing with three sacks, the first Illini to record three sacks in a game since Whitney Mercilus did in 2011.
Illinois overcame a slow start against the Huskies to stay unbeaten on the young season. UConn led 13-0 at the end of the first quarter before Peters and the Illinois offense emerged in the second quarter, scoring 24 unanswered points to take a 24-13 lead into halftime.
Jakari Norwood led the Illini run game with 62 yards on only six carries as Reggie Corbin (hip pointer) did not play. Josh Imatorbhebhe hauled in four receptions for 42 yards, including his first two touchdowns with the Illini after transferring this offseason from USC.
This Illinois football team could do something only two others have managed this millennium and win a nonconference game away from Memorial Stadium. So yeah, today's game at UConn could wind up being kind of important. A barometer of sorts to see if the Lovie Smith era is, in fact, turning a corner.
That's why beat writer Scott Richey (that's me) caught a plane to the east coast. I'll be providing updates all game long from Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. Fun fact, Pratt & Whitney build the engines used in the F-22 Raptor. And here's where I shoehorn in a metaphor about jet engines and the Illini needing to take off this season.
So follow along all day as Illinois, a 20 1/2 point favorite on the road no less, takes on UConn. (And scroll past the Twitter action for a little more on those other two Illini teams that won on the road in nonconference play).
So about those other Illinois teams that won a nonconference road game this millennium. Ron Turner's 2001 team did it at California and then ultimately won a Big Ten title (the program's last one of those) before playing in the Sugar Bowl.
The only other team and consequently last ones to pull off the nonconference road win? Try Ron Zook's 2007 team that won at Syracuse (on, fun fact, Brit Miller's birthday) and then played in the Rose Bowl.
So via the transitive property as it applies to football, if Illinois wins today at UConn then the Illini, at minimum, will play in one of the elite bowl games if not win a Big Ten championship. Right?
Maybe pump the brakes on that a little. Right now 247Sports has Illinois projected to play Fresno State in the Idaho Potato Bowl. Free spuds for life to the winner, I think. To borrow from Illini volleyball coach Chris Tamas (who has a Sweet 16 and Final Four appearance in his two seasons so far) one game at a time might be the best way to approach things.
One game at a time means UConn, and Smith has an appreciation for what Randy Edsall and the Huskies do even if they only barely managed to squeak past Wagner (an FCS team) in Week 1.
"Randy Edsall is an outstanding football coach," Smith said. "Any football team that he's coached, there's a certain type of play you expect. Disciplined football. Hard-nosed football. They had a tough one to open the season. It is what it is.
"For us, it doesn't matter who our opponent is. We're going on the road. We haven't had a ton of success on the road. I'm told we haven't won a non-conference road game since 2007. I don't know if that's true or not, but it sounded pretty good to tell the team. There's a lot at stake, and good football teams can't just play at home. You have to be able to go on the road, so I'm anxious to see how we respond in the second game.
'I think every year I've been here, we've won the first game, and I talk about the improvement from game one to game two. That's what we need to see. There's so much room to improve."