MINNEAPOLIS — Brandon Peters held on to the ball on a read option play early in the second quarter of Saturday’s game at Minnesota. It was the right read by the Illinois quarterback, and he picked up seven yards on first down.
Peters also took a big hit from Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield and Keonte Schad. The latter, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive lineman, drove Peters into the ground. And that was it for the Illini’s starting quarterback.
Peters was shaken up on the play and immediately replaced by Matt Robinson. The redshirt freshman out of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., ultimately finished the game, and there was not much of an update on Peters after Illinois’ 40-17 loss to the Gophers.
“Didn’t finish the game,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said when asked about his starting quarterback’s status. “You saw the hit. That’s tough when you lose your quarterback. We’ll see how that goes. He didn’t finish the game, so that’s concerning.”
Robinson completed 15 of 29 passes for 125 yards and rushed seven times for a net negative yard in the longest stretch of playing time in his still-young Illinois career.
“First, you hope he’s all right,” Robinson said of his first thought when Peters went down. “Then after that, you’ve got to get your mind ready to go. It was kind of a surprise, obviously, during the game when that happens. Once it happens, you just have to get yourself ready.”
Illinois never got its offense on track against Minnesota. The Illini finished with 248 yards of total offense and averaged just 3.8 yards per play.
“That’s tough duty when you’re the backup and you come in,” Smith said. “When a backup comes in and there’s positive results, that’s not the norm. Normally when your starter goes down, it puts most teams in a hole, and we were (Saturday). I thought he fought hard and did what he could.”
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Robinson has been Illinois’ backup quarterback this season.
Four-star freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams’ playing time so far in his first year has been limited to a pair of plays against Nebraska. The St. Louis native didn’t make the trip to Minneapolis, though, with an undisclosed injury. A hamstring injury kept him sidelined part of training camp and also early in the season, but Smith did not specify what type of injury caused Williams to miss the first Big Ten road game of his career.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Smith said. “He doesn’t have a season-ending injury or anything like that, but he wasn’t able to go this week.”
Getting Williams in for a couple plays two weeks ago against the Cornhuskers was a matter of him finally being healthy.
“We wanted to get him into the game a certain way,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said earlier this week about Williams. “I thought it would be a change of speed — a way to get him involved. It didn’t work out. One of the plays, they made a good play on. The other we didn’t block very well.”
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Robinson did manage to give Illinois a bit of a push off the bench late in the first half and did so by connecting with another Illini reserve. He hit redshirt sophomore wide receiver Donny Navarro three times in the passing game on Illinois’ final drive of the half that ended in a 46-yard James McCourt field goal that cut the Illini’s deficit to 16-10 at halftime.
“I came in there just really trying to give this team a spark,” said Navarro, a walk-on Valparaiso transfer in his first season playing at Illinois. “I’ve been working hard in practice, and when my number gets called, I’m going to do whatever I can to make an impact for this team and help this team win. It’s been a long journey, definitely, coming from Valpo and having to sit out a year. That’s in the past, and I’m just taking it day by day and working for an opportunity.”
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The most glaring statistic from Minnesota’s 40-17 victory was its rushing total. The Gophers entered Saturday’s game having rushed for 463 yards as a team in their first four games combined. Against the Illini? Try 52 carries for 332 yards and two touchdowns.
“We had our best practice this week for the guys up front, and it showed (Saturday),” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “The scheme we put together was executed greatly, and it’s great to see these guys get better each and every week.”
Rodney Smith led Minnesota with 24 carriers for a career-high 211 yards and a touchdown. Shannon Brooks added 16 carries for 111 yards and a score of his own. They were the 29th and 30th players to rush for at least 100 yards in the 41-game Lovie Smith era at Illinois.
Rodney Smith makes up an even 10 percent of those performances. He rushed for 100 yards in Minnesota’s 40-17 win in Champaign in 2016 and 103 yards in the Gophers’ 24-17 win in Minneapolis in 2017.
“We’ve got to tackle better,” Lovie Smith said. “Yeah, you can always call a different defense, but eventually you have an offensive guy and a defensive guy in position to make a tackle. It’s bad when you don’t have a guy in position to tackle, and when you have a guy in position to tackle, we need to make more tackles. As a general rule, there will be breaks in every game, but you can’t let them go the distance. Big plays are what’s killing us on the defensive side of the football.”
The Illini just weren’t sound enough defensively Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
“It’s just the inconsistency of actually being where you’re supposed to be,” senior linebacker Dele Harding said. “Little things that gives the opposing offense the run game that they had even though it shouldn’t have been like that at all.”
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Illinois’ run game struggled. Reggie Corbin rushed 14 times for 68 yards, which was the redshirt senior running back’s lowest output this season in a full game. Peters was actually second on the team with 10 rushing yards despite limited playing time.
“Just didn’t execute,” Corbin said. “The play calls were there, of course. We have to make the right reads. Make the catches. Make the right reads in the run. Make the blocks. Every single aspect of football we just have to do.”
The Illini’s ineffective run game didn’t lie on a single pair of shoulders.
“When you do well running the football, I’d say the offensive line is doing a great job of opening the hole,” Lovie Smith said. “When you’re not, you’re going to start with that. Every time we’ve been able to have production running the football, we’ve talked about the offensive line, so it goes both ways.
“We’re going to say we have to play better up front, and running backs are going to have to make a couple guys miss. They made us miss. We need to make them miss a little bit.”