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LINCOLN — So that’s how things are supposed to go when Illinois has all of its offensive and defensive weapons available.
In their most complete game of the season, the Illini rolled up nearly 500 yards and converted five Nebraska turnovers into 24 points Saturday in a 41-23 victory.
After a last-second win over Rutgers last week, the Illini (2-3) have back-to-back Big Ten road wins for the first time since 2007. The victory also is Lovie Smith’s first over Nebraska since he became the Illinois coach in 2016.
“We’ve been building this football team for a while,” Smith said. “We understand how we started our football season. A lot of these guys have played a lot of football, they’re good football players and it’s good to see it show up on the football field. This is our most-talented football team we’ve had.”
Smith said the performance against the Huskers (1-3) was one of the best of his tenure.
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“All three phases, going on the road, a tough place (to play), all that, it would have to be right up there for sure,” Smith said.
Saturday’s game also was the first chance for quarterback Brandon Peters to start since he was sidelined the past three weeks because of COVID-19 protocols.
Peters, who started the season-opening loss to Wisconsin, performed like a salty veteran. The 6-foot-5 transfer from Michigan completed 18 of 25 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown. He also ran eight times for 36 yards and scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to put Illinois ahead 38-17.
Illinois had two backs go for more than 100 yards apiece. Chase Brown had 26 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and Mike Epstein led the Illini with 113 yards on 13 carries and one touchdown.
“They’re both excellent running backs and we’re a running football team,” Smith said. “We make the statement we get off the bus running the ball. In order for that to happen, though, our offensive line and everybody that blocks, receivers and of course tight ends, too, they take pride in that.”
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On many of the Illini’s 52 running plays — which went for an average of 5.5 yards per attempt — ball carriers collected extra yards by falling forward.
Smith was equally impressed with Illinois’ passing game, which thrived in part because of the success of the ground game.
“If you have a dominant running game you have to gang up on the run,” Smith said. “That puts us in one-on-one situations outside. The receivers did a good job of catching Brandon’s balls. I was as impressed with our passing game today just as much as I was with our running attack.”
Peters said he’s much happier to be back on the field than he was while isolating in a hotel room because of COVID.
“When I got the news it was pretty tough to stomach that,” Peters said. “Ten days in the hotel room is not ideal, especially when you feel good enough to be out there. I prepared really well early this week, and I thought the game plan was really good.”
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