CHAMPAIGN — The perfect opportunity was staring the Illinois football team right in the eyes on Saturday against Eastern Michigan at Memorial Stadium.
Beat a Mid-American Conference football team at home to complete a sweep a favorable nonconference schedule and welcome Nebraska to town next week with a 3-0 record and in a primetime game in the Big Ten opener.
However, the Illini couldn't seize the chance.
Penalties set the offense behind and stalled drives. A pair of turnovers ended drives altogether. The offensive line couldn't keep quarterback Brandon Peters out of danger and upright. All of those mistakes and miscues led to nine consecutive possessions that ended with a punt, a turnover, or in one case the end of the first half after head coach Lovie Smith mismanaged the clock.
It all set up a 24-yard, game-winning field goal by Eastern Michigan kicker Chad Ryland as time expired to beat Illinois 34-31. In total, there were nine penalties that cost Illinois 80 yard, six sacks that cost 51 more and two turnovers.
“We gave ourselves opportunities to do some things, but we stomped our foot a little bit after that," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. "Turnovers really hurt us. Penalties maybe hurt us even more."
The Illini scored on three of their first four drives in the game, then the offense came up empty for the next nine possessions, tallying 78 combined yards on those drives that kept them scoreless for the next 38 minutes, 56 seconds of game time.
There were back-to-back holding penalties on two drives to put the offense in first-and-long or second-and-long situations, and both of Peters' turnovers (one interception and one fumble) came during that stretch of play. Peters finished 22-of-37 passing for 297 yards, two touchdowns and two turnovers. His TD in the fourth quarter was the game-tying pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe with 1:44 left.
“Penalties and turnovers killed us," Peters said. "We played behind the chains all day. When you get into third and long it’s not easy to execute. We just got stagnant."
Peters was sacked six times and was hurried once. The Eastern Michigan (2-1) defense took advantage of an Illinois offensive line that's the most experienced group on the team in terms of games played, and got in Peters' space. Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton knew his team would have to defend the whole field, particularly with Illinois running back Reggie Corbin (18 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown) returning from a hip pointer injury. Pressure up front was key, and he got it.
“We just didn’t give him time to work back there," offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said. "We need to get better at that, see what we did wrong (Sunday) and improve it."
Even after Peters led a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, that included a fourth-down completion from the Illinois seven-yard line, the defense couldn't stop Eastern Michigan one last time. The Eagles were held to just 52 yards and no points in the third quarter, and the Illinois defense left the door open for the offense, begging it to break through and take control of the game. They never did.
“We just beat ourselves, man," Corbin said. "We moved the ball every time, every single time down the field. Then we were just making mistakes and it would bring it back. Sometimes we dropped the ball or made the wrong read or let a guy trough or even I did things that weren’t perfect. It’s a team effort, man. We’ve just all got to get right."
In the fourth, Eastern Michigan tallied 157 of its 480 total yards and marched 68 yards in eight plays to set up the game-winner. The Illini defense was without safeties Tony Adams and Stanley Green and defensive lineman Lere Oladipo, Jamal Woods and Kenyon Jackson. None of the three were dressed, and Smith said Oladipo was suspended for a violation of team rules.
Still, Eastern Michigan picked up too many yards, behind 316 passing yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Mike Glass III and 188 rushing yards as a team.
“The whole unit, whether it was the rush up front or the back end coverage, we’ve got to dial in," linebacker Dele Harding, who had 17 tackles said. "That’s it. Adversity has always been a thing of ours, we’ve just got to learn how to like it and adapt to it and make plays when our name is called."
Illinois missed an opportunity, but there's no time to dwell with Nebraska coming to town.
“Just keep working," Peters said. "Come everyday in practice, keep our heads up. It’s embarrassing to lose like this, but we’ve got to keep pushing. But there’s a lot of football to play."