CHAMPAIGN — Three games into the college football season and the true nature of what the Illinois offense will be in 2021 is still an unanswered question.
Starting quarterback Brandon Peters played just three drives in the Week 0 showdown with Nebraska before being driven from the game with a left shoulder injury. Neither of the top two returning running backs have stayed healthy, with Chase Brown returning only in time for Mike Epstein to go down with an injury again. And a veteran offensive line has both gone through some early shuffling and early struggles.
Any positives from that season-opening 30-22 win against Nebraska on the last Saturday in August — like the Illinois offense’s ability to stay on the field and control time of possession — have stagnated in consecutive losses to Texas San Antonio and Virginia during the first two Saturdays in September.
“We executed at a much higher level in that Nebraska game,” Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said Wednesday.
“Executed on our big plays. Executed on short yardage. Just better execution on offense. When you don’t execute on offense and have some little breakdowns here and there, it shows up and you end up off the field after third down.”
Slow starts have plagued the Illinois offense the entire season. The Illini have yet to score in the first quarter in any of the three games and boast just five total first downs in those 45 combined minutes.
Last Saturday’s 42-14 loss at Virginia saw Illinois go three-and-out on consecutive drives to start the game. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were ripping off back-to-back scoring drives that covered 155 total yards on just nine plays and in barely more than two minutes of game action.
“We’ve got to do a better job — starting with our coaches — of putting them in a better position,” Petersen said. “Going out as players and executing in the first half. Just getting started. We’ve had two three-and-outs to start the last two games. We’ve got to figure out a way to get that first down and get that mojo going like we did in the Nebraska game.”
Illinois had a supposed early advantage this season with Petersen crafting a new offense to fit his personnel. The flip side of that? The Illini couldn’t be sure how opposing defenses would try to counter it.
“Offensively, you’re always going to have a game plan element,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “Sometimes, as you get a little bit deeper into the season, you’ll understand what your opponent is going to bring you. … When your number is called — whether it be quarterback, running back, wide receiver, an offensive lineman throwing a block or a tight end either in throw game or the run game — early on, we’ve got to answer those questions quicker and with a little bit better execution.”
Friday night’s game against Maryland (2-0) provides a platform to see if Illinois (1-2) can find some consistency with its offense.
The run game as a whole is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, and Epstein, who is out for at least the next four weeks, is still the team’s leading rusher with just 107 yards. Backup quarterback Art Sitkowski, called on to throw a lot with Illinois facing early deficits, completed just 56.9 percent of his passes and averaged just six yards per attempt. And the Illini haven’t been able to extend drives by converting just 41.7 percent of their third-down opportunities.
“I feel like we’ve got our identity,” Petersen said despite those struggles. “What we’ve got to do is go out and execute at a higher level, and we’ve got to make sure we keep the defense off the field. We’ve got to execute on third down, be better there. We’ve had some third-and-shorts where we didn’t get the first down. Then, our job at the end of the day is to score one more point than the other team’s offense. We didn’t do that the last two weeks.”
The combination of a healthy Brown in the run game and Peters’ reported return for Friday night’s game at Memorial Stadium could provide Illinois the spark it needs.
The latter is almost a fresh start for the Illini offense given how little Peters played against Nebraska.
“I’m excited to get him back in there,” Petersen said of Peters. “He was our starting quarterback going into the season, and guys don’t lose their jobs because of injuries. He’s healthy and ready to go now and brings something a little bit different to the table.
“I’m excited to see where he’s at. He didn’t get very many snaps in that first game, and I was excited to see how he was going to play against Nebraska. It’s kind of like starting the season over at the quarterback position with him, and I can’t wait to see how he performs.”