CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema didn’t waste much time in preemptively answering what would have been the first question asked of him Monday afternoon.
Just 1 minute, 9 seconds into his opening statement from the eighth floor of Memorial Stadium, the Illinois coach said Brandon Peters would return for Friday’s game against Maryland and also start for the Illini (1-2) at quarterback against the Terrapins (2-0). Peters, who suffered an AC joint sprain in his left (non-throwing) shoulder Aug. 28 against Nebraska, missed the subsequent loss against Texas San Antonio and was held out of Saturday’s loss at Virginia after not getting cleared until late last week.
“Well, he was our starting quarterback going into the opener, right?” Bielema said about going back to Peters. “He was lost really early in that first game. A lot of the things we saw during fall camp — even going back to last spring and through the summer and through fall camp — weren’t able to be materialized yet. He obviously has a very live arm and I think a lot of experience.”
Backup quarterback Art Sitkowski started against both UTSA and Virginia and played for most of the season-opening win against Nebraska after Peters went down after just 13 snaps. The Rutgers transfer completed 58 of 102 passes for 611 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in his fill-in QB1 role.
Bielema told Sitkowski on Sunday about the decision to go back to Peters as the Illini starting quarterback.
“It wasn’t anything he did or didn’t do well,” Bielema said. “He played extremely well — especially the way he first entered the game going back to the Nebraska game. I thought the guys really did a nice job of rallying around him and did some good things.
“I told him if the role were exactly reversed — if he was the starter and was knocked out of the game and BP came in — we would do the exact same thing 100 times over. I always think honesty is the best policy, and that was just being real. Art was awesome with it. BP, obviously, is excited about the opportunity.”
The sum total of Peters’ production this season is completing 3 of 4 passes for 35 yards in the first quarter against Nebraska, handing it off to three different running backs for seven total carries and the sack he took where he was injured. That’s also the extent of his work since the Nebraska game.
“He’s kind of seen this evolve now for two games not being on the field and not really involved in the game prep,” Bielema said. “He really hasn’t take any practice reps with our 1s and 2s since the preparation for Nebraska. Ryan (Johnson) and Art had been taking all those reps. He’s gone against our defense through scout team. He did some things during practice that were non-contact that allowed him to stay involved in the practice plan, but nothing as well as it will be this week.”
Peters did stay busy despite not getting cleared for full contact until just before the Virginia game, which was the reason he didn’t play in Saturday’s 42-14 loss to the Cavaliers.
“He’s heavily involved every practice and every meeting,” Bielema said even if that took on a non-contact role in the former. “Anything he could do to help Art was something that was very, very clear from the moment the injury happened to where we are today. A very, very good teammate. A guy that not only helped Art, but helped RJ and Matt (Robinson).”
Peters got his first full practice run Monday night at Memorial Stadium under the lights in preparation for Friday’s 8 p.m. kickoff against Maryland. Peters’ return could be a boost to an Illinois offense that needs it since the Illini have failed to score in the first quarter in all three games so far this season.
The Illinois offense was also bolstered Saturday at Virginia by the return of running back Chase Brown. Running back Chase Hayden also got back on the field after a one-game absence because of an ankle injury, and wide receivers Brian Hightower and Jafar Armstrong played limited roles in their season debuts against the Cavaliers after missing the first two weeks with undisclosed injuries.
The Illini, however, will be without running back Mike Epstein on Friday against Maryland because of an undisclosed injury in a career full of them. The veteran back out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is still Illinois’ rushing leader this season with 25 carries for 107 yards despite missing the Virginia game.
“Mike’s in basically a holding pattern,” Bielema said. “He has another round of tests in four weeks or something like that. Right now, he won’t be back with us any time soon.”