Notes: Illinois honors Bobby Roundtree at season opener | Sports


CHAMPAGNE – Jamal Woods and Owen Carney have reunited with Illinois coach Bret Bielema ahead of the start of the season.

They all wanted to find a way to honor former Illini Bobby Roundtree, who died in July after fighting for two years in rehabilitation and recovery from a serious spinal injury in 2019.

The idea? A flag bearing the phrase “97 Strong” that a player would wear to lead the team onto the field before Saturday’s season opener against Nebraska. Woods said Bielema was “all for that”.

Woods was also the first standard bearer. Something he said he was grateful to do.

“Bob was my best friend,” said Woods. “We know that when he was on this Earth he was a hell of a gamer. One game, he made 16 tackles against Penn State. Just being able to carry on our legacy and keeping people up to date with what “97Strong” means is always a good thing for us to do. “

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Woods carried this flag to Zuppke Field in front of a cheering crowd. An announced crowd of 41,064 people filled the best part of the stands at Memorial Stadium – a first since the 2019 season given COVID-19 restrictions in place last fall.

The difference was certainly noticeable for the Illinois and Bielema players.

“The crowd was awesome from the Illini Walk,” Bielema said. “I thought our players really reacted to this. Then during the game I think you really felt them. It had been so long since they had been able to smell the crowd. Even though it wasn’t totally sold out, it was definitely an energetic crowd.

“I think we sold the student section which was absolutely great to see. As players and coaches, we must be able to recognize and honor him. He’s a voter. If we win them, it bleeds into everything. “

Veteran offensive lineman Alex Palczewski called the 2020 season with only family in the stands “brutal”. Seeing the fans for the first time after coming out of the tunnel for the game, he added, that’s when he felt the real difference in atmosphere and environment.

“It was surreal, it was awesome,” added Illinois tight end Luke Ford. “The energy of the student section, my God. Credit to them. They were loud, and they were proud. It excites us. I feel like we play better when everyone is screaming and screaming. It was an incredible experience. “

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Bielema had no injury update following Saturday’s game.

Starting quarterback Brandon Peters and starting inside linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. were the most notable players eliminated from the game.

“I know BP, it was his left shoulder and not his right shoulder, so as a quarterback it was a positive thing when you are right handed,” Bielema said. “I don’t know yet how long or anything like that. I don’t know anything about CJ other than that he’s been removed from the game.

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Illinois turned to Art Sitkowski at quarterback after Peters injured himself.

Rutgers’ transfer took a drive or two to start, but he finished with an efficient line of 12 of 15 completed passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked in his first game, then never again the rest of the game.

“I just wanted to do my best,” Sitkowski said. “This team, coming here in May, I’ve never been with a bunch of guys that just brought people in.… I had been through a lot at Rutgers – a lot of ups and downs – but I had Learned a lot from that. I learned a lot from my failures. I’m just really happy. It was a great team win. “

Bielema had a quick word with Sitkowski before entering the game. The Illinois coach knew what he would get from the alternate quarterback.

“I said ‘Good luck’,” Bielema joked. “No, I just wanted him to know it wasn’t by chance that he was going to be in this position.” He really has a pretty strong presence and awareness. He talks, acts, walks and reacts like a quarterback. I didn’t really have any thoughts on how he was going to handle the moment. What I didn’t know was how the guys were going to react to him.

Bielema got his answer to that question after Sitkowski was hit by Nebraska outside linebacker Caleb Tannor and knocked into the ground for a passer penalty that wiped out the interception Sitkowski had just thrown.

“When Art was hit, our children came together on the pitch,” Bielema said. “I saw it happening visibly. This is what you cannot put a price on as a coach.

With Peters’ status unknown after the game, Sitkowski’s role for next week’s game against Texas San Antonio is still in question. Considering that Peters had his left arm in a sling when he returned to the field in formal attire for the second half, Illinois may need to lean a bit more on Sitkowski.

“Whatever the coach’s decision is, that’s what I’m going to do,” Sitkowski said. “BP, he was great for me. The minute I walked onto campus, he held out his hand. We went there to the movie theater and watched movies together everyday. Without BP, none of this would ever have happened.

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Isaiah Williams finished his first game as a full-time wide receiver for Illinois with a high six catches for 41 yards and one touchdown. The former quarterback also had two carries for eight yards, as Illini’s offensive coordinator Tony Petersen used Williams in a variety of ways.

“I had the chance to make a few plays and show what I could do, but it wasn’t until from here,” said Williams. “More progress to make and more games to play.”

The only constant for Williams in his versatile role was movement. He was on the pre-snap motion almost every time he was on the pitch.

“Man, like in practice it’s worse, but a lot,” Williams said of how much he had run on Saturday afternoon. “I feel like that’s what helps us a lot – I move around and I can move around and check the defense and have the defense show us their hand as they move.”

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Williams wasn’t the only former quarterback in a new role.

Deuce Spann was still in that position on Illinois’ roster for Saturday’s game, but that could change. He also played as a receiver, picking up a 45-yard pass from Sitkowski in the third quarter that set up the Illini’s final touchdown.

“And Deuce Spann, right?” Said Bielema. “A guy who literally plays wide catcher first comes up with a big play like that, taps his toes and puts the ball on the six-inch line.”

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The Illinois defense has come under a lot more pressure in the Nebraska backfield than in recent seasons.

Hart, Johnny Newton, Seth Coleman, Rod Perry, and Keith Randolph Jr. all had a bag each. Newton also had two rushed quarterbacks, with Hart and Isaiah Gay nothing each.

What hasn’t changed, however, is Illinois’ ability to be opportunistic in defense. Hart’s big day also included a scoop and score on a Nebraska fumble dropped by Randolph.

“I think you try to make the best of every situation,” said Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen. “(Former Illinois coach Lovie Smith) preached a great job getting out and removing the ball. We will continue this. “

SCOTT RICHEY


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