CHAMPAIGN — Brandon Peters is back in the saddle.
Illinois coach Bret Bielema announced Monday that Peters will be the team’s starting quarterback Friday at home against Maryland. The sixth-year senior entered the season as the Illini’s QB1 before being knocked out of the season opener with an “AC joint sprain” to his left (non-throwing) shoulder, according to the ACC Network. Peters has only played 13 snaps this year.
Artur Sitkowski, a Rutgers transfer, filled in for Peters and started the last two games. The fourth-year quarterback has completed 58 of 102 passes for 611 yards and six touchdowns with one interception this season.
“Brandon Peters will be back. We’ll actually go with him as our starting quarterback going into this game (against the Terrapins),” Bielema said. “Had a conversation with Art (on Sunday), brought him in and talked about where we’re at and what we’re doing. Wasn’t anything that he did or didn’t do well. He played extremely well, especially the way he first entered the game going back to the Nebraska game. I thought the guys did a nice job of rallying around him.”
Sitkowski completed 12 of 15 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Huskers in his Illinois debut, propelling the team to its lone win of the year.
Peters, a Michigan transfer, is in his third season with the Illini. He’s completed 194 of 359 passes for 2,348 yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions in 17 games.
The super senior will try to help Illinois end a two-game skid following a 37-30 home loss to UTSA on Sept. 11 and a 42-14 loss at Virginia on Saturday.
“(Sitkowski) did some good things, but I told him that if the roles were exactly reversed, if he was the starter and knocked out of the game and BP came in, we would do the exact same thing 100 times over,” Bielema said. “I think honesty is the best policy and that was just being real. Art was awesome with it, and BP is obviously excited about the opportunity.”
The Illini will have one less day to prepare for undefeated Maryland with their second Big Ten matchup slated for Friday night instead of the usual Saturday. Bielema isn’t putting much stock into the abbreviated week. He said he told his players Sunday that they were already “24 hours behind” their typical schedule, but the Terrapins are faced with the same challenge.
Bielema is in his 13th season as a college head coach and spent three years as an NFL assistant before taking over at Illinois. He said the experience he gained during that span has helped him modify and maximize his team’s preparation for games no matter the schedule.
“(I) had a Thursday night game when I was in college, had Friday night games when I was in college as a head coach and I had Thursday night games in the NFL (after) we played on Sundays, which is an absolute crazy turnaround,” Bielema said. “I kind of took the schedules of all those different looks and combined them into what we thought could give us the best chance to get ready for this Friday.”
Starting center Doug Kramer Jr. and starting safety Sydney Brown left last week’s game with an undisclosed injury and shoulder injury, respectively. Bielema expects Kramer, one of six team captains, to play Friday, but Brown's status is up in the air.
The junior has recorded 18 tackles and one pass breakup this season.
“He’s undergoing some further exams, and (I) don’t know exactly where he’s gonna be at for Friday night,” Bielema said. “But, he’s a lot better (Monday) than he was (Sunday).”
While Brown could return to action against Maryland, running back Mike Epstein isn’t in the same boat. The injury-plagued super senior missed the Virginia game with an undisclosed ailment, and Bielema said he’ll be sidelined for quite a while.
Counting Friday’s game against the Terrapins, Epstein has only appeared in 22 of a possible 49 contests over the last five years for the Illini.
He currently leads the team in carries (25) and rushing yards (107), though that is likely to change Friday.
“Mike’s basically in a holding pattern,” Bielema said. “He has another round of tests at some point, maybe in like four weeks or something like that. But right now he won’t be back with us any time soon.”
Bielema confirmed Monday that his entire team is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and has been “for probably three weeks.” Prior to the season, he mentioned a few times that his program was trending toward that status.
“We’re going back to some of the same policies they had in the past,” Bielema said of loosened restrictions. “But yeah, I think our guys have really been conscientious of it. To get everybody 100% vaccinated was a big step in the right direction, and I think they’re being cautious about how they spend their time away from the game of football as well.”
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid