MADISON, Wis. — Illinois football was already down one linebacker in the first half of Friday night’s season opener at
No. 14 Wisconsin.
Milo Eifler started the game on the bench, serving a targeting-related suspension from the Redbox Bowl. You know, 300 days ago.
The Illini took another hit at linebacker when Jake Hansen had to be helped off the field in the first half after stumbling around following a blow to the head. The redshirt senior middle linebacker and team captain didn’t return, ending his night with only two tackles.
“Losing Jake and not having Milo out there, we weren’t at our best, but hopefully this week we get a lot of those guys back,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said after Friday night’s 45-7 loss. “It was obvious we had some guys missing. With the guys that we had here (Friday), we’ve got to be able to play better than that.”
Delano Ware started in Eifler’s place, which wasn’t a surprise given Smith has called the Richmond, Calif., native his “fourth starter.”
Tarique Barnes filled Hansen’s role and provided some excitement when he returned a Sydney Brown-forced fumble 39 yards for the Illini’s first touchdown of 2020. Barnes finished with a game-high 11 tackles, including a sack. The touchdown late in the second quarter trimmed the Illini’s deficit to 14-7. But the Badgers, sparked by quarterback Graham Mertz, led 28-7 at hlaftime.
“We have a plan for anyone that could possibly be down for whatever reason — COVID, injuries, suspension,” Smith said. “It’s always about the next person up. The Shammond Coopers and Tarique Barnes, we have some other young players who have been waiting for their opportunity.”
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Illinois also started Friday’s game without projected starters Isaiah Gay and Devon Witherspoon. They were officially ruled out approximately an hour before kickoff.
Fellow senior Marc Mondesir started in Gay’s place. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Chicago native and St. Rita graduate has bounced between linebacker and defensive end in his career, playing in just three games in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury.
Illinois was also without redshirt senior wide receiver Trevon Sidney and senior safety Michael Marchese. Redshirt senior offensive lineman Blake Jeresaty, of course, has already been ruled out for the season.
With Witherspoon out, Tony Adams moved back to cornerback from safety after doing the reverse in training camp. Miami transfer Derrick Smith got the start at safety in his Illini debut.
Defensive tackle Roderick Perry II, offensive lineman Verdis Brown and wide receiver Brian Hightower also made their first career starts Friday.
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Illinois announced its social justice awareness initiatives on Thursday with a black Block I, black fist and social-justice message on their helmets. Wisconsin’s jerseys sported a new special-edition patch of the university crest logo featuring a black W.
The rest of the Big Ten teams will move forward with similar initiatives during Saturday’s games. Michigan will have “Equality” and multi-colored fist graphics on its helmets. Ohio State’s helmets will also have an “Equality” graphic.
Northwestern players will wear special pregame shirts featuring a fist icon and the phrase, “True change will only come once everyone in this country feels the same outrage as Black people.” Michigan State’s helmets will feature “Black Lives Matter” stickers.
“The conversation will not fizzle out,” Lovie Smith said about Illinois and the Big Ten continuing to raise awareness for racial and social issues. “That’s what happens, though, a lot of times. If you have a death in the family, people come to the funeral and then go home and kind of forget it a little bit. I don’t think this is something that’s going to go away. I know it’s not. There’s a time and a place for everything.”
Friday night’s game only happened because both Illinois and Wisconsin fell within the approved COVID-19 case positivity rates both for the teams and the “football community” around the teams.
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Getting buy in to follow the protocols now for several months, Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters said, hasn’t been a problem.
“I think everybody knows what’s at risk,” Peters said. “If you test positive, you’re out for three weeks. Coach Lovie has been huge harping on the little things like that (in) keeping everybody safe. As far as the team goes, I think everybody is bought in to what we need to do to keep everybody healthy and have a successful year.”
Peters said he hasn’t had to remind his teammates to wear their masks when necessary or follow the other protocols. Head athletic trainer Jeremy Busch has been on top of the team to do just that.
“We’re doing testing daily,” Peters said. “When we’re in the facility, I feel like it’s a safe space for everybody to be even if we don’t have our mask on.”
Lovie Smith said the discipline for breaking protocol is the same as for missing a meeting or “doing anything else you’re not supposed to do.” That hasn’t been an issue, though, so far.
“They’ve done what we’ve asked them to do,” Smith said. “If you really wanted to play football this year, it’s not something we had to browbeat on them each day. In order for us to get a college season in, everybody had to sacrifice a little bit, and that’s what we’re doing.”
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Illinois’ tight end group received plenty of preseason interest with Daniel Barker returning, Luke Ford becoming eligible and Daniel Imatorbhebhe transferring from Southern California to join his younger brother Josh with the Illini.
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith had said several times leading up to Friday night he plans to use his tight ends in multiple ways — both in the passing game flexed out wide and to bolster blocking for the run game.
Adding Daniel Imatorbhebhe to the mix just added to Illinois’ options at tight end, although the tight ends weren’t involved heavily in the pass game on Friday night. Barker caught two passes for 15 yards, but no other tight end hauled in a reception for the Illini. Ford was targeted once in his Illini debut.
Rod Smith said he sold the Imatorbhebhe brothers on finishing what they started at USC and in how he would use Daniel as a tight end.
“His concern was, ‘I don’t
want to take shine away from Josh,’” Rod Smith shared. “My thing is, we can do this thing together. There’s enough touches to go around to keep everybody happy and fed. I think he kind of bought in to what I was selling and how we planned on using him. Josh was in love with it as well. Once that happened, I think Mom got on board, and it was a done deal.”