CHAMPAIGN — Illinois almost had its first 3-0 start since 2011. Almost.
Trailing Eastern Michigan 31-24 with 2 minutes 58 seconds to go and the ball at their own 7-yard line on fourth and 10, Illini quarterback Brandon Peters found Josh Imatorbhebhe on a 32-yard pass play.
Then, after hitting Imatorbhebhe for 14 yards and an 11-yard Reggie Corbin rush, Peters found Imatorbhebhe again, and the USC transfer fought a defender off his back to stretch the ball just over the goal line for the game-tying touchdown, knotting the score at 31-all with 1:44 left.
That was plenty of time for Eastern Michigan (2-1) and the Eagles upset the Illini 34-31 on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Quarterback Mike Glass III led the Eagles swiftly down the field, completing four-straight passes — three for first downs — to set kicker Chad Ryland up for a game-winning 24-yard field goal.
Ryland nailed it with ease, and just like that, Illinois’ hopes of finishing the nonconference slate unscathed were extinguished and their long-term bowl hopes were greatly diminished.
“There was a lot at stake today,” fourth-year head coach Lovie Smith said. “I thought we would play a lot better than we did.”
A week removed from a narrow win at Connecticut during which they were called for nine penalties for 98 yards, the Illini continued to shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly.
Illinois (2-1) once again had nine penalties called, this time costing the team 80 yards. Especially evident, though, was how much those penalties plagued the offense as it struggled to move the ball in the second and third quarters of the game.
After scoring 17 points in the first quarter on 178 yards of total offense, Illinois sputtered for just 62 yards in the second quarter (3.9 yards per play) and 56 yards in the third quarter (2.5 yards per play).
The offensive line allowed six sacks, including one that sent Peters sprawling through the air as he was blindsided, and was unable to consistently give Peters time in the pocket to find his receivers.
“A general explanation is they just beat us up front,” Smith said. “It’s a one-on-one game, it’s as simple as that. One-on-one blocking, and for them to get pressure, I would say that they did.”
Illinois led 17-14 after the two sides went back and forth in the first quarter, with the only separation being junior kicker James McCourt’s 57-yard field goal to open the game.
But as Illinois stalled offensively, Eastern Michigan had its way.
EMU quarterback Mike Glass III carved up an Illini secondary that was missing free safety Tony Adams, but returned strong safety Sydney Brown to the lineup.
Glass completed 23-of-36 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns, spreading the ball around to five receivers who each caught three or more passes.
The defense gave up 183 passing yards in the first half, including a 47-yard pass play to Matthew Sexton, which put the Eagles up 14-10 with 1:10 left in the second quarter.
Senior linebacker Dele Harding echoed the disappointment of Smith when it came to the defense allowing big plays and its failure to execute, especially when it mattered most.
After scrapping back with Imatorbhebhe’s game-tying touchdown with 1:44 left, Eastern Michigan drove right down the field in eight plays for 68 yards. With all three timeouts and after back-to-back 23-yard pass plays to get the Eagles to the Illini 17-yard line, they played it safe and centered the ball for Ryland to win it.
“Nothing we hadn’t seen before, we just didn’t execute,” Harding said of the drive. “Two-minute drill, things like that, we’ve got to come through as a unit and we didn’t.”
While the nation’s leader in sacks — at least for now – Oluwole Betiku Jr. did get one sack and six tackles, the rest of the defense repeatedly broke down.
For Harding, it was on everybody, not just the secondary or the defensive line, which failed to get much penetration against the most competent offensive line it had faced yet to date.
“Just the whole unit, whether it was the rush up front or in the back in coverage,” Harding said. “We’ve just got to dial in, that’s it. Adversity has always been a thing of ours, we’ve just got to learn how to like it, adapt to it and make plays when our name is called.”
Still, the defense was able to muster enough stops for the offense to jolt itself back to life in the fourth quarter.
The Illini found themselves down two touchdowns with 11:20 remaining in the fourth quarter, but strung together an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive that brought the game to 31-24 with 7:46 to go.
Senior running back Reggie Corbin — who missed the UConn game with a hip pointer — got several big blocks and broke out to the sideline to score a 28-yard rushing touchdown.
Then, the group was pinned back at its own 7-yard line and found a way to put together a 93-yard scoring drive.
But the program won’t have its dreamy 3-0 matchup in primetime against Nebraska next week.
The loss will no doubt keep some more fans home — there were only 34,759 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday — and will dim the cautious optimism around the program.
“We’re a Big Ten team, we start Big Ten play next week,” Smith said. “The reality is that. We clean up things, we take care of business next week, we’ll forget all about this. But right now, you take it game by game. We had an opportunity to do something we haven’t done (since 2011) and we didn’t get it done.”