CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Who will be Illinois’ quarterback on Saturday when No. 16 Michigan comes to town?
A week ago, it would have been a safe bet to pencil Brandon Peters in against his former team. Now, after Peters was injured in the first half of Illinois’ loss to Minnesota last weekend, the quarterback situation remains less clear. Peters didn’t return to the game and redshirt freshman Matt Robinson finished it, going 15-of-29 passing for 125 yards and giving Illinois a threat as a runner from the quarterback spot.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith didn’t have an injury update on Peters or true freshman Isaiah Williams, who didn’t make the trip to Minnesota because of an injury.
“There hasn’t been enough time,” Smith said on Monday. “It’s always a concern when players don’t finish a game; let’s start with that. Isaiah missed last week, didn’t make the trip, all of that. We’ve had guys heal up quickly. Neither one has a season-ending injury or anything like that. That’s why we need to get to (Tuesday). Of course, we have all this week and a lot of things can happen. We’ll need everyone, of course, if we’re going to beat a team like Michigan.”
Robinson didn’t lead Illinois on any scoring drives — the Illini (2-3) were kept out of the end zone on offense — but helped lead the team down the field for a field goal before halftime.
“I think he did OK for a backup quarterback coming into a game in a tough situation,” Smith said. “I think we could have helped Matt with some of the passes that we dropped. I thought the protection did fairly well most of the time.”
There likely won’t be an update on the quarterback situation until Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff. Smith has been steadfast in his stance that a healthy Peters is the team’s starting quarterback. Robinson, Williams and Coran Taylor are the other three scholarship quarterbacks on the team. Cam Miller is a walk-on option at quarterback for the Illini.
“If the other guys can’t go, we’ll get them reps and ready to go,” offensive coordinator Rod Smith said of Robinson, Taylor and Miller. “If the other guys are healthy, we’ll definitely get them reps and up to speed.”
Robinson had his first substantial playing time last Saturday for Illinois. He played sparingly in mop-up minutes last season, but M.J. Rivers III (who transferred before the season) was the backup to AJ Bush Jr. last year. Robinson’s first meaningful minutes weren’t bad.
“I thought he did OK,” Rod Smith said. “He battled. He didn’t play clean. For his first true time, in terms of importance, I thought he went in and gave us a little bit of a spark. We moved the ball. We got some points before half. We should have gotten more, but I thought he did some good things. I was excited for Matt and hopefully it’s something we can keep building on.”
Peters likely would be considered the best passer on the team, but the other three scholarship players are more mobile. Robinson’s running presence was noticeable, as he gained 19 yards before a flurry of sacks and a bad snap took his rushing total down to minus-1 rushing yards. He had a long run of 11 yards.
It offered a different dynamic for the Illini from Peters, who can run but isn’t as mobile as Robinson or Williams.
“We probably do a little more read stuff with him and utilize his legs a little more, probably,” Rod Smith said. “Our base runs are the same; our philosophy is still the same. You may just utilize the skill set of what the quarterback does and what he does maybe a little bit better or what he’s strong suited as.”
No matter who the quarterback is against Michigan, it’s going to be a different week of practice for Robinson.
“Until we tell him otherwise, last time we played Matt was behind center,” Lovie Smith said. “Does that give you more motivation? Each week we tell our backups to expect: If the guys above me goes down first snap, am I ready to go? You have to prepare yourself that way. A lot of it will be with mental reps. I would say, yes, it’s a little bit of a different approach that Matt is thinking about right now.”