CHAMPAIGN — Rod Smith watched from Memorial Stadium this past Saturday as Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters completed his first eight passes, including two for touchdowns, versus then-No. 24 Iowa.
The Illini offensive coordinator also witnessed his senior playcaller miss on eight of his final 10 passing attempts.
And Smith then saw redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams produce 121 all-purpose yards and toss his first collegiate touchdown pass during the final two offensive possessions of Illinois’ 35-21 loss to the Hawkeyes.
Perhaps that’s why Smith felt compelled to indicate he has no worries about the incumbent starting quarterback Peters heading into this Saturday’s 11 a.m. game between the Illini (2-4) and No. 15 Northwestern (5-1) at Ryan Field in Evanston.
“We started the game off really good, I thought, and just kind of hit a lag there. It wasn’t necessarily Brandon’s fault,” Smith said Monday afternoon. “That’s what I told Brandon: It wasn’t his fault. I was just trying to see if we could get a spark and maybe get Isaiah running a little bit on the perimeter, because that’s where it seemed like we could attack (Iowa) a little bit easier.”
Smith followed that thought with several others about Peters, among them:
— “Brandon played well and competed throughout most of the game.”
— “I’m not disappointed with Brandon Peters at all.”
— “I’m not down on Brandon.”
Whatever this says about Illinois’ quarterback situation leading up to the regular-season finale with the Wildcats, neither Rod Smith nor Illini coach Lovie Smith is saying.
“We know what we’re going to do at the quarterback position,” Lovie Smith said. “No, we’re not going to talk about it right now, like no one else does. Can’t wait to put that on display this Saturday up in Evanston.
“There’s a place for Isaiah. He gave us a spark the other day. … But show up Saturday (and) you’ll see.”
Rod Smith indicated the Illini’s severe offensive shift — from producing 14 points in barely more than one quarter against a Hawkeyes defense that was allowing 16.7 per game, to being held well below 100 yards across seven drives against Iowa — wasn’t caused by just one individual.
He credited Iowa’s defense, calling them “probably the best defensive football team we’ve faced this fall.”
But Rod Smith also pointed at deficiencies in each part of Illinois’ attack.
“Every quarterback needs help,” Rod Smith said. “Brandon’s not going to win the game by himself. He’s not going to lose the game by himself, for the most part. It’s all 11 guys, so we’ve got to make sure all 11 are going in the right direction.”
Rod Smith said he noticed “uncharacteristic” errors by offensive linemen, including Kendrick Green, Vederian Lowe and Danville native Julian Pearl. Center Doug Kramer agreed after Saturday’s game, calling the front five’s play “sloppy.”
Rod Smith also identified moments of “miscommunication,” such as when receiver Donny Navarro pulled up early on a route despite his closest defender being taken out of the play after running into a Hawkeyes teammate.
“Anytime you can start off a game 8 for 8, (Peters is) feeling it,” Smith said. “The wideouts are in the right place at the right time. Your protection is probably pretty good. It’s a coordinated effort. All of that was taking place early on.
“As the game went on, (Iowa) seemed to get a little bit more pressure, rushing the passer a little bit, pressuring the throws sometimes.”
The Hawkeyes were credited with one sack, two quarterback hurries and six pass breakups on the game.
Rod Smith expressed happiness with Williams’ play against the Hawkeyes, though the Illini offensive coordinator continued to note that both Peters and Williams bring attributes that the Illini need.
“Brandon probably throws it better than Isaiah does. Isaiah probably runs it a little bit better than Brandon,” Rod Smith said. “Certain times in a game might help accentuate what they do good. That’s kind of what we try to run with.”
Rod Smith isn’t discussing any sort of quarterback controversy as Illinois tries to end a five-game skid in the Land of Lincoln Trophy series against Northwestern. Instead, he wants those who take the field for the Illini offense to clean up their act from what he saw in the loss to Iowa.
“You hope … no matter who you’re playing that you don’t lose your fundamentals, you don’t lose your training,” he said. “But I think we did, unfortunately, at times, and it showed.”