CHAMPAIGN — Jamal Woods and Owen Carney got together with Illinois coach Bret Bielema before the season started.
They all wanted to find a way to honor former Illini Bobby Roundtree, who died in July after fighting through rehab and recovery for two years following a severe spinal injury in 2019.
The idea? A flag bearing the phrase “97Strong” that one player would carry to lead the team on the field before Saturday’s season opener against Nebraska. Woods said Bielema was “all for it.”
Woods was also the first flag bearer. Something he said he was grateful to do.
“Bob was my best friend,” Woods said. “We know that when he was on this Earth he was a hell of a player. One game he had 16 tackles against Penn State. Just to be able to carry on his legacy and keep people aware of what ‘97Strong’ means is always good for us to do.”
Woods carried that flag onto Zuppke Field to a cheering crowd. An announced crowd of 41,064 filled the better part of the Memorial Stadium stands — a first since the 2019 season given the COVID-19 restrictions in place last fall.
The difference was certainly noticeable for the Illinois players and Bielema.
“The crowd was awesome starting with the Illini Walk,” Bielema said. “I thought our players really reacted to that. Then during the course of the game I think you really felt them. It had been so long since they had been able to feel a crowd. Even though it wasn’t totally sold out, it was definitely an energetic crowd.
“I think we sold out the student section, which was absolutely awesome to see. As players and coaches, we’ve got to be able to recognize that and honor that. They’re a constituent. If we win them, it just bleeds into everything.”
Veteran offensive lineman Alex Palczewski called the 2020 season with only family in the stands “brutal.” Seeing the fans for the first time after coming out of the tunnel for the game, he added, was when he felt the real difference in atmosphere and environment.
“It was surreal, it was awesome,” Illinois tight end Luke Ford added. “The energy from the student section, my God. Credit to them. They were loud, and they were proud. It gets us hyped up. I feel like we play better when everyone out there is yelling and screaming. It was an awesome experience.”
Bielema didn’t have any injury updates following Saturday’s game.
Starting quarterback Brandon Peters and starting inside linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. were the most notable players knocked out of the game.
“I know BP, it was his left shoulder and not his right shoulder, so as a quarterback that was a positive thing when you’re a right-hander,” Bielema said. “I don’t know how long or any of that stuff yet. I don’t know anything about CJ at all other than he was removed from the game.”
Illinois turned to Art Sitkowski at quarterback after Peters was hurt.
The Rutgers transfer took a drive or two to get going, but he finished with an efficient line of 12 of 15 passes completed for 124 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked on his first play, and then never again the rest of the game.
“I just wanted to do my best,” Sitkowski said. “This team, coming here in May, I’ve never been around a group of guys that just brought people in. ... I’d been through a lot at Rutgers — a lot of ups and downs — but I learned a lot from that. I learned a lot from my failures. I’m just really happy. It was a great team win.”
Bielema had a quick word with Sitkowski before he entered the game. The Illinois coach knew what he would get from the backup quarterback.
“I said, ‘Good luck,’” Bielema joked. “No, I just wanted to have him know that it didn’t happen by chance he was going to be in this position. He really has a pretty strong presence and awareness. He talks, acts, walks and reacts like a quarterback. I didn’t really have any thoughts about how he was going to handle the moment. What I didn’t know was the way the guys were going to react to him.”
Bielema got his answer to that one question after Sitkowski was hit by Nebraska outside linebacker Caleb Tannor and driven into the ground for a roughing the passer penalty that wiped out the interception Sitkowski had just thrown.
“When Art got hit, our kids rallied on the field,” Bielema said. “I saw it visibly happen. That’s the stuff you can’t put a price tag on as a coach.”
With Peters’ status unknown following the game, Sitkowski’s role moving forward for next week’s game against Texas San Antonio is still in question. Given Peters had his left arm in a sling when he returned to the field in street clothes for the second half, Illinois might have to lean on Sitkowski a bit more.
“Whatever coach decides, that’s what I’m going to do,” Sitkowski said. “BP, he’s been great for me. The minute I stepped on campus he reached out. We went in there in the film room and watched film every single day together. Without BP, none of this would have ever happened.”
Isaiah Williams finished his first game as a full-time wide receiver for Illinois with a team-high six catches for 41 yards and a touchdown. The former quarterback also had two carries for eight yards, as Illini offensive coordinator Tony Petersen used Williams in a variety of ways.
“I got the chance to make some plays and show what I could do, but it’s only up from here,” Williams said. “More progress to be made and more plays to be made.”
The one constant for Williams in his versatile role was movement. He was in motion pre-snap nearly every play he was on the field.
“Man, like in practice, it’s worse, but a lot,” Williams said about how much he ran Saturday afternoon. “I feel like that’s what helps us a lot — me moving around and being able to move and check out the defense and get the defense to show us their hand by me moving.”
Williams wasn’t the only former quarterback in a new role.
Deuce Spann was still listed at that position on the Illinois roster for Saturday’s game, but that might change. He played as a receiver, too, hauling in a 45-yard pass from Sitkowski in the third quarter that set up the Illini’s final touchdown.
“How about Deuce Spann, right?” Bielema said. “A guy that, literally, first play at wide receiver comes up with a big play like that, toe taps and puts the ball out on the six-inch line.”
The Illinois defense got significantly more pressure in the Nebraska backfield than in the past several seasons.
Hart, Johnny Newton, Seth Coleman, Rod Perry and Keith Randolph Jr. all had one sack apiece. Newton also had two quarterback hurries, with Hart and Isaiah Gay nothing one each.
What didn’t change, though, was Illinois’ ability to be opportunistic on defense. Hart’s big day also included a scoop and score off a Nebraska fumble popped loose by Randolph.
“I think you try to take the best out of every situation,” Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen said. “(Former Illinois coach Lovie Smith) preached a great job of getting the ball out and taking the ball away. We’re going to carry that forward.”