The Fighting Illini hosted their first game of the 2020 football season last Saturday, a game they had to play without many of their starters on offense due to COVID-19 contact tracing and three players testing positive, including starting quarterback Brandon Peters. Without their usual offense, Illinois struggled to score in the red zone and the Illini fell to 0-2 after a 31-24 defeat.
It may have only been Halloween morning, but the day started off scary for Lovie Smith’s Illini, finding out on the morning of the game that they would be without 14 players due to Peters and redshirt freshmen Griffin Moore testing positive for COVID-19. The Big Ten’s rigid protocols require any players who may have come in contact with these two to quarantine for 10 days. This meant Illinois would be without nine players on offense, four players on defense, and their starting kicker, James McCourt for the game against Purdue and next week’s game against Minnesota.
The absences on offense were clear early, as Purdue jumped out to an early 14-0 lead with 11:01 left in the first half while the Illini punted twice and turned the ball over deep in Purdue territory twice over their first four drives. The momentum started to shift, however, when the Illinois defense forced a fumble midway through the 2nd quarter to kickstart Illinois’ first touchdown drive of the day, capped off by a Mike Epstein 7-yard TD run. After trading field goals, Illinois only trailed Purdue by seven points going into halftime.
But the second half began the same as the first. Purdue scored two touchdowns in the 3rd quarter to give the Boilermakers a 21-point lead. Illinois’ offense moved the ball well and was able to score back-to-back touchdowns in the 4th to make it a one-score game, but the last drive stalled on the Purdue 8-yard line and the game was over.
Illinois started the game with Matt Robinson at QB following Peters’ positive test result, but Robinson was knocked out of the game due to injury so sophomore Coran Taylor handled most of the QB duties for the Illini. Taylor finished the game 17-29 for 273 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and 32 rushing yards.
With the number of players with positive test results up to three now, it will be worth watching how Illinois handles this ever-evolving situation against Minnesota (0-2) and beyond. That game will be this Saturday, November 7th, at 2:30 pm in Memorial Stadium.