September 4, 2021
(Cover photo courtesy Craig Pessman/Illinois Athletics)
A week of euphoria from the season opening win was washed away on a rainy Saturday as Illinois suffered a humbling home loss to Texas-San Antonio, 37-30. It's the most points an Illinois team has ever allowed to a Conference USA squad.
Quarterback Art Sitkowski, making his first start as an Illini in place of the injured Brandon Peters, settled down after a slow start to throw for 266 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. Converted QB Isaiah Williams had the best game of his young receiving career with eight catches for 101 yards.
"Give credit to UTSA", said Illini head coach Bret Bielema. "This isn’t where I want to be, obviously. I knew this was going to be a tough assignment when we started to preparation last week. I was on the guys pretty hard about that. I thought they responded very well, but unfortunately we weren’t good enough to win today."
An evenly matched game changed midway through the first quarter. After the two teams had exchanged punts twice, redshirt freshman Keith Randolph Jr. - who had recorded a sack on the first series of the game - left with a lower left leg injury. The Illini defense weakened without him and the Roadrunners took advantage with a 13-play, 94-yard touchdown drive to open the scoring. Then after holding Illinois (1-1) to a quick three-and-out series, UTSA scored again as Brendan Brady's 7-yard run made it a 14-0 lead.
"We put ourselves in a situation where we were down two scores early", reflected a frustrated Bielema, who was looking for his 99th career victory as a head coach. "Just played behind the chains all game. We couldn’t get off the field on 3rd down. That was probably the tale of the game."
Meanwhile, the Illini offense was sputtering. Just one first down and only 35 yards in a run-exclusive first quarter, Illinois finally broke through on Sitkowski's first completion of the game. The Rutgers transfer hit converted quarterback Deuce Spann on a 31-yard pass down the left sideline. It was the freshman's first collegiate touchdown and it cut the score in half at 14-7.
After UTSA (1-0) kicked a field goal, Sitkowski engineered another scoring drive that ended in a touchdown pass to Daniel Barker to make it a 17-14 game.
But bad luck crept up and nipped Illinois in the rear end just moments later. The Illini defense forced a three-and-out series. But the ensuing UTSA punt landed on the turf and bounced up and hit Illini defender Kerby Joseph on the hindside. UTSA recovered and, instead of Illinois with possession and a chance to take the lead before halftime, the Roadrunners drove down and kicked a field goal for a 20-14 lead halfway through the game.
The two teams traded field goals in the third quarter before UTSA hit paydirt with a Frank Harris to Zakhari Franklin score. The Roadrunner duo was spectacular, as Franklin recorded 10 catches for 155 yards, most of those coming before halftime. Harris threw for 280 yards to lead an offense that rolled up 497 total yards.
Illinois wasn't done as they pieced together a pair of scoring drives. Sitkowski threw his third touchdown pass of the game as Barker caught his career-best second touchdown of the game. Then James McCourt, who had set an Illini career record earlier in the game with his sixth 50-yard field goal, drilled a 32-yarder to pull Illinois within 37-30.
But it appeared that it was a lost cause for the Illini with just 1:55 left on the clock. However, the Illinois defense held and gave the offense one more opportunity. Sitkowski drove the team as close as the UTSA 15-yard line, but his final throw landed in the arms of receiver Casey Washington just beyond the back end line as time expired.
Lots to talk about and to teach when Bielema gathers the team on Sunday. "The worst thing that could happen is if we don’t learn from it. As bad as it tears up your insides. It does hurt, it should hurt, I think it does hurt. This will hopefully be a lesson that we had to learn. Unfortunately, it sucks to go through it, but hopefully it’ll be a positive thing for us in the future."
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