CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Brandon Peters went through every drill in pregame warmups Saturday morning at Scott Stadium.
The Illinois quarterback pecking order before the game was clear, though: Art Sitkowski was going to start against Virginia.
But Peters took snaps from backup center Blake Jeresaty. Got his reps in during 7-on-7 situations and then full team work before the game.
Kickoff marked the end of Peters’ day, however.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback spent Saturday’s game on the sideline after only being fully cleared for contact late in the week, as his recovery from an AC joint sprain in his left (non-throwing) shoulder continued.
“He didn’t get any practice reps,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “He threw and was at practice, but wasn’t cleared until basically game time. To put him in that situation isn’t fair to him.”
Now that Peters has been cleared, he should be in line to resume his role as Illinois’ starting quarterback for the 8 p.m. Friday game against Maryland.
Should being the operative word.
Bielema is going to make sure Peters is 100 percent healthy before inserting him back in the lineup following his injury early in the Illini’s 30-22 win against Nebraska on Aug. 28.
“Once he’s been back into practice and get himself in that environment, we’ll see where he’s at physically,” Bielema said. “He’s physically cleared to play, but quarterback is a critical position. To have him and Art both is a positive.”
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Sitkowski completed 24 of 45 passes for 221 yards, one touchdown and one interception during Saturday’s 42-14 loss against Virginia. But the Rutgers transfer was again in charge of an Illinois offense that failed to score in the first quarter. That makes three straight games — although Peters played most of the first quarter against Nebraska.
“I just think it goes back to me getting these guys ready to play,” Sitkowski said. “It’s my operation. I’m the quarterback. I’ve got to do a better job of getting these guys ready to play, and I’ve got to do a better job early in the game. I started out slow. I missed a couple reads that I should have had.”
Sitkowski’s one touchdown pass was a 33-yard strike down the middle of the field to Deuce Spann. Illinois’ second quarterback-turned-wide receiver now has three catches in three games this season. The shortest was a 31-yarder. Two of the three have gone for touchdowns.
“Going from playing quarterback one week to receiver a couple days later, he obviously has a tremendous talent,” Sitkowski said of Spann. “He just works really hard at it. We’re really excited about Deuce.”
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Illinois’ only other touchdown came on 21-yard run by Chase Brown on the first drive of the second half. That Brown was able to get outside the tackles and turn the corner before putting on a burst of speed for the touchdown wasn’t a surprise.
The Illini game-planned to attack the perimeter. Targeting the edge of the Virginia defense yielded the most successful plays both in the run game and in Sitkowski finding his running backs in the flats or Isaiah Williams on screen passes.
Williams caught five passes for 41 yards. Brown had four catches for 28 yards and rushed seven times for 41 yards. Jakari Norwood added four carries for 35 yards, taking advantage of getting outside the tackles like Brown.
“One of our things was to get the ball on the perimeter and do some things there that I thought were good,” Bielema said about the scoring drive capped by Brown’s touchdown that trimmed the Illini deficit to 21-14 early in the third quarter. “We stayed ahead of the chains. I thought that was a big part of our game. We were able to do that on that drive. Any of the drives we had success, that’s what happened. We stayed ahead of the chains.”
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The biggest change to Illinois’ lineup Saturday came at offensive line. Colgate transfer Jack Badovinac started at left guard, and Danville native Julian Pearl started at right guard.
Bielema said he felt comfortable starting Pearl at guard, because right tackle Alex Palczewski was ready to play a full game. Palczewski, in his fifth season starting, was in a maintenance program during training camp as he returned from a torn ACL, and the Illini staff was still watching his snap count during the season opener.
“We knew that the only guy really that we felt could play tackle at this level was (Pearl),” Bielema said about Pearl backing up Palczewski. “Once Palcho gave us the indication he felt good playing an entire game, then we felt better about moving Julian in and trying to get our best five offensive linemen on the field.”
Pearl showed he was capable during the spring, playing right tackle, and again during summer workouts and fall camp playing multiple positions.
Illinois offensive line coach Bart Miller said the 6-6, 310-pound Pearl has continued to improve both from a technical standpoint and in understanding the offensive line’s role in the offense.
“Every week, he’s played really well and graded out really well and earned more time,” Miller said. “He’s a huge part of our offense moving forward. We’re excited about where he can go.
“He’s playing much more physically. I think what’s happening now is he’s getting more confidence. He had a couple starts last year and looked lost at times on film. He’s continued to own that responsibility of playing multiple positions, learning the offense and having confidence in his body.”
Illinois made one in-game change at offensive line after sixth-year center Doug Kramer was knocked out of the game with an undisclosed injury. Jeresaty finished the game at center.
The Illini also lost starting safety Sydney Brown in the first half.
“He took a shot to the shoulder,” Bielema said of Brown. “That’s basically what kept him off. I know at halftime they told me he wouldn’t be back in the game.”
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The Illinois defense got after Adrian Martinez in Week 0, sacking the Nebraska quarterback five times. Then the Illini defense managed just one on Texas San Antonio quarterback Frank Harris. Saturday’s game at Virginia resembled more of the latter.
The Illini failed to sack Virginia starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong or his backup Iraken Armstead, who finished out the game. Illinois also managed just four tackles for loss for the game, as the pressure in the backfield — in any scenario — wasn’t there.
“We’ve got to rush them more,” Illinois defensive lineman Jamal Woods said. “We’ve been doing a lot of going down the middle at (offensive) linemen. It’s time for us to start doing some stuff on the edge. The (defensive backs), they’ve got to cover. If we’re not getting back there to the quarterback fast enough, that’s longer coverage for them. We’ve got to play complementary football and all click on one accord.”