CHAMPAIGN — It wasn’t what Illinois planned, but nevertheless the Illini earned a 30-22 Big Ten West victory over Nebraska in coach Bret Bielema’s debut Saturday, and a newcomer led the way.
Backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski subbed in for starter Brandon Peters after Peters was sacked and left the game with a left shoulder injury late in the first quarter. Sitkowski, who transferred from Rutgers to Illinois in the spring, completed 12 of 15 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the first college football game of the year.
“I’ve been through a lot at Rutgers. I went through a lot of ups and downs, but I learned a lot from that,” said Sitkowski, who threw 18 interceptions as a true freshman in 2018. “I learned a lot from my failures and my ups and downs and that’s what life’s all about, getting yourself back and going, so I’m just really happy. It was a great team win.”
Nebraska appeared to have all of the momentum in the opening stages of the game. With about six minutes left in the second quarter, the Huskers held a 9-2 lead when cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt picked off Sitkowski around mid-field. However, Taylor-Britt’s interception was nullified due to compounding roughing the passer and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties by linebacker Caleb Tannor, which gave the Illini the ball back and helped them avoid a potentially larger deficit.
“I was ready to go, man. I was fired up, I was fired up,” Sitkowski said about the roughing the passer penalty. “When you get hit like that, you know you’re alive so you gotta keep going.”
A few plays later, Sitkowski appeared to throw an 8-yard touchdown pass to running back Jakari Norwood, but after a review, Norwood was called out at the 1-yard line. Fellow running back Mike Epstein plunged in on the ensuing play to eventually tie the game up 9-9, which turned out to be the first of three touchdown drives that Sitkowski commanded.
“Anytime your (starting) quarterback gets knocked out that’s a big deal, and I thought Art was prepared for the moment,” Bielema said. “I give (offensive coordinator) Tony Petersen and a lot of the offensive staff a lot of credit to have him step into that role and really never miss a beat. I think when he had the late hit, the personal foul on him, more than anything it fired up the troops around him. You literally saw the offensive line get fired up (and) get some good rhythm.”
Illinois tacked on another touchdown with under a minute to play in the first half thanks to a strip sack by defensive lineman Keith Randolph on Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez. The fumble was then scooped up and returned for a 42-yard score by linebacker Calvin Hart Jr., who eventually left the game in the fourth quarter with a left leg injury.
After halftime, Sitkowski continued his steady play. On the Illini's first possession of the third quarter, he capped off a 14-play, 75-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Luke Ford. Sitkowski followed that up later on in the period with a 1-yard touchdown pass to newly-minted wide receiver Isaiah Williams, who was a quarterback in his first two seasons at Illinois, to give the Illini a 30-9 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Martinez broke free for a 75-yard touchdown run with just under four minutes left in the third quarter to make it 30-15, following a missed extra point attempt. He then threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Oliver Martin to close the gap to 30-22 with three minutes left in the game, but it was a little too late.
When asked if he got emotional following his first Big Ten win since 2012, Bielema, who previously coached at Wisconsin, quickly dismissed that notion.
“Was I fighting back tears? No, I was just sweating,” Bielema said, laughing. “I am an emotional guy, I get wound up, but I was just overly happy. Happy, not only for my players, but I have a lot of family and friends in here for this game. That means a lot. Obviously some of you probably saw my parents are here. You only get one opener, so I give (athletic director Josh Whitman) credit. He made that happen for my folks. … A lot of really cool things about this game day you can’t put a price tag on.”
Bielema said he didn’t have an update on Peters, as Illinois turns the page and prepares to host the University of Texas at San Antonio next week.
Sitkowski could make his first Illini start against the Roadrunners and plans to remain humble and focused.
“I think it’s just the way I was raised,” Sitkowski said of his mindset. “My mom and my dad are both from Poland, and they came here with nothing. They always told me you could do anything in life as long as you work hard.”
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