LINCOLN, Neb. — Brandon Peters, by his own admission, often displays a “cool and calm attitude.”
“But I’m also really competitive,” the Illinois quarterback said, “when I want to win.”
Case in point: Peters’ reaction to his 1-yard keeper for a third-quarter touchdown during Saturday’s 41-23 thumping of host Nebraska, helping the Illini to consecutive Big Ten road wins for the first time since 2007 and a victory in Lincoln for the first time since 1924.
Peters let out a celebratory shout and, a short while later, stuck a single finger skyward. The cherry on top for Peters, who was unable to play in his team’s previous three games because of a positive COVID-19 test he received on Oct. 29.
“One of their defensive players, he wanted to talk a little bit, but I just pointed to the scoreboard,” Peters said. “Didn’t say much to him. Moving forward, this is a huge win.”
It certainly was one of the most dominant in Lovie Smith’s four-plus seasons leading Illinois. The Illini (2-3) proved superior to the Cornhuskers (1-3) in every facet of the game as they put forth their first 40-point game since Aug. 31, 2019, against Akron.
The last time they hung at least 40 points in conference play: A 55-31 home win against Minnesota on Nov. 3, 2018.
“Our guys played well (Saturday). We deserved to win. We practiced that way all last week,” Smith said. “We started fast. They were ready to go from the start.”
That was evident when linebacker Jake Hansen pounced on what was ruled a backward pass from Nebraska quarterback Luke McCaffrey on the Cornhuskers’ first play.
It was the first of five takeaways generated by the Illinois defense. Peters and Co. needed just three plays after McCaffrey’s miscue to send Chase Brown into the end zone for his first collegiate touchdown, with Brown’s 3-yard run giving the Illini a 7-0 lead only 89 seconds into the game.
Though Nebraska responded with a scoring drive of its own, the Illini took control from there and led 28-10 at halftime. The Cornhuskers never got closer than 14 points the rest of the way.
“We played Nebraska well last year and thought we had our opportunities to win,” said Smith, referencing the team’s 42-38 loss in 2019 during which Illinois led 35-21. “So we thought we matched up fairly well. We felt like we had a good game plan coming in.”
Peters executed the offensive portion of that script as if the Illini’s resounding 45-7 defeat at Wisconsin on Oct. 23 wasn’t his most recent in-game experience.
He engineered 490-yard outburst that included both Epstein (113 yards on 13 carries) and Brown (110 yards on 26 carries) eclipsing 100 rushing yards — as well as the duo combining for three touchdowns — and Peters himself completing 18 of 25 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown. Not to mention 36 rushing yards and the aforementioned rushing score.
“I didn’t really feel rusty,” Peters said. “I’ve actually been back for about 10 days now, so I’ve had the time to get back to it a little bit.”
Peters also linked up with seven different receivers, his favorites being Josh Imatorbhebhe (four catches, 71 yards, one touchdown) and Donny Navarro (five catches, 58 yards).
“I was just taking what the defense was giving me. ... The middle of the field was open at times,” Peters said. “Our running backs and our offensive line played well. When you can run the ball like that, it opens up a lot of stuff for you.”
Peters and tight end Griffin Moore went from preparing for a Hallowen game with Purdue to quarantining amid their COVID-19 diagnoses.
Getting to travel to New Jersey for last week’s 23-20 win at Rutgers, Peters said, was beneficial in allowing him a chance to fall back into a sort of gameday routine.
He had to give up that aspect of his life, along with many others, because of the Big Ten’s COVID-19 policies. It proved especially frustrating for Peters because he said he never felt sick enough to the point where he wouldn’t have been comfortable playing.
But Peters eventually put that emotion in the back of his mind.
“Ten days in the hotel room is not ideal, especially when you know you feel good enough to be out there playing,” Peters said. “It sucked, but at the same time you’ve got to stick in there mentally (and) support your guys. ... I just wanted to go out there and execute and do what I can do.”
Fellow quarterback Isaiah Williams, who started and thrived running the ball at Rutgers, received a smaller workload Saturday. After garnering a Big Ten Freshman of the Week accolade following his first start as an Illini, Williams didn’t attempt a pass and ran for 14 yards on three carries a week later against Nebraska.
“If we had reservations (about Peters) after what Isaiah did last week, we would’ve ... went in a different direction,” Smith said. “(Peters is) pretty cool and calm. I just know I’m just glad he played that well. We need our quarterback position to play that way.”
Peters is back in charge of the Illini after Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor and Williams started in successive weeks against Purdue, Minnesota and Rutgers, respectively.
That his return included his first rushing touchdown since last year’s win at Purdue added a little extra enjoyment to the experience.
“It feels good,” Peters said. “I got a little help from Mike Epstein. He let me know about it. He said he pushed me in, but we’ll have to look at the film.”