After hearing Nebraska defenders constantly talk to him, Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters needed no words after a 1-yard touchdown run.
During the 41-23 victory at Nebraska, which was the first for the Illini program in Lincoln since Red Grange was in the backfield in 1924.
Peters tossed a touchdown and had the 1-yard plunge in his first game in nearly a month after the Illini starter missed three games due to testing positive for the coronavirus.
“I definitely have a calm, cool attitude but I’m also very competitive and I want to win,” Peters said. “One of their defensive players wanted to talk a little bit. So I just wanted to point to the scoreboard and didn’t want to say much to him.”
After getting a turnover and a touchdown in its first defensive and offensive possession, Illinois followed that script of nearly non-stop offense and takeaways to a dominating win.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, who picked up his 10th conference win since taking the job in 2016, said this victory was “near the top” of the best of his five-year tenure.
“Whenever you win somewhere for the first time since Red Grange played, it’s a big deal,” Smith said.
The return of Peters jump-started an offense that was averaging just 17 points per game as Illinois (2-3) led 28-10 after two quarters, their most first-half points against a conference opponent in 10 years, and was up 41-17 early in the fourth quarter.
Peters would finish 18 of 25 for 205 yards, completed a pass to seven different receivers and had a 28-yard touchdown pass to Josh Imatrobhebhe.
“I felt locked in early on to our game plan and what the defense was trying to do,” Peters said. “One key was when I got out there, I really didn’t try to force things.”
The same thing of limiting mistakes could not be said for Nebraska quarterback Luke McCaffrey, making his second start at quarterback for Nebraska (1-3), committed his first turnover on the first play from scrimmage and this was a theme of Saturday’s game that resulted in five takeaways for Lovie Smith’s Illini defense and Illinois’ second road game in as many weeks.
“We played Nebraska well last year (in a 42-38 loss in Champaign) and we felt like we had a good matchup and game plan for them so why not (be confident)?” Smith said.
In a game that featured a lot of trash talk from both sides, Peters showed the opposite of his quiet, cool demeanor by his third-quarter touchdown sneak to give Illinois a 38-17 lead with 17 and a half minutes to go.
Nebraska entered the game as a 16-point favorite but had problems at the quarterback position and with an inability to stop the balanced attack of Illinois. McCaffrey, who is the youngest of former NFL star Ed McCaffrey’s three sons, finished with 256 total yards but just 134 through the air and four turnovers with three interceptions. With the game firmly in the hands of the road team, McCaffrey was benched in favor of former elite-level prospect Adrian Martinez in the fourth quarter.
Illinois got added to the lead on Mike Epstein's 1-yard run two plays after he broke a 58-yarder down the sideline. The junior from Florida finished with 113 yards on 13 carries to pair with Chase Brown’s 110 yards on the ground. Saturday marked the first time Illinois has had back-to-back games with two 100-yard rushers since 2000. Rocky Harvey and Antonio Harris both rushed for over the century mark against Middle Tennessee (Sept. 2, 2000) and San Diego State (Sept. 9, 2000). Illinois has now won Big Ten road games in consecutive weeks for the first time since Nov. 3, 2007 at Minnesota (44-17) and Nov. 10, 2007 at No. 1 Ohio State (28-21).
“We’re a running football team and we constantly make the statement that we get off the bus running the ball,” Smith said. “For that to happen though, you have to have offensive lineman and tight ends take pride in that. When that happens, it’s incredibly tough on a defense.”
Illinois will try to make it three wins in a row when they return home against No. 3 Ohio State (4-0) and will attempt to end a streak of nine straight wins in the series.