CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (CBS/AP) — COVID-19 left the Illini scrambling on Saturday before they went on to fall to Purdue with a decimated lineup.
Head Coach Lovie Smith emphasized after the game that the team is not dealing with an outbreak.
But we found out about an hour before kickoff that the Illini had two players – including starting QB Brandon Peters – who tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 14 players ended up missing the game because of either contact tracing or injury.
Peters’ backup, Isaiah Washington, also missed the game due to contact-tracing protocols, said Illinois spokesman Kent Brown. In all, 12 Illinois players were scratched, including field-goal kicker James McCourt.
Peters and tight end Griffin Moore were the only Illinois players to test positive for the virus, Smith said. “The rest are because of contract tracing.”
The game was played without spectators and, for the most part, without updated official statistics available in the press box.
The Illini were down to fourth-string quarterback Coran Taylor, with Peters and Washington out and No. 3 QB Matt Robinson getting hurt early.
Smith wouldn’t say the COVID-19 issues were because of playing the Wisconsin Badgers last week. The Badgers now have 22 cases.
“It’s hard to tell where it came from. You know, we’ve been a lot of places. Did we go to Wisconsin? Yes. We’re not in a bubble, so we live in the world, and things can happen,” Smith said. “I just want to say, team-wise, though we don’t have a big problem within our team with actual guys that have tested positive.”
“We’re as safe as we could possibly be,” said Illini senior linebacker Jake Hansen. “I want to make that known that across the nation, no one’s getting tested like we are. No one has the access to immediate health care right away – the best athletic training staff like we do, so I think we’re safe playing football rather than not playing football in my opinion.”
The Illini went on to lose 31-24.
Despite its woes, Illinois managed to make a game of it and was within seven points and 15 yards of tying the game with less than two minutes to play. Taylor’s pass fell short and the Boilermakers (2-0, 2-0 Big Ten) took over on downs, sealing the victory.
Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell finished 29-of-36 passing for 376 yards and the two scores for Purdue. David Bell was his favorite target, catching nine passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.
“David always seems to make that big catch,” said Purdue coach Jeff Brohm. “He’s just a remarkable player with a tremendous sense of calm about him.”
Brohm was back on the sidelines for the Boilermakers after missing the last game, a 24-20 win over Iowa, with a positive COVID-19 test. His brother, offensive coordinator Brian Brohm, coached the team in his absence.
Things went a bit differently for Illinois (0-2, 0-2). Sophomore Taylor found himself at the helm on his team’s second possession, following what appeared to be an ankle injury to last-minute starter — and third=string QB Robinson.
Taylor, who had only a couple of reps with the team the past week, was 17 of 29 for 233 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice.
“Did we play hard?” asked Smith. “Did we handle a tough situation? Yes, we did. We’re not in a bubble. We live in the real world. I thought everyone stepped up and did a good job.”
RING THE BELL
What is it like throwing to David Bell?
“It’s amazing,” O’Connell said “He’s a special player, and we say that every week. But he just stays so level-headed.”
Bell seemed content to let others shine postgame. “Oh? I had my hundredth career catch today?” he asked a reporter. “I didn’t know that. It’s a good feeling, I guess.”
Jeff Brohm called Bell a “once-in-a-generation” player. “There’s not a lot he can’t do,” he said. “He never gets rattled and he makes those big, contested catches.”
Smith conceded he had to simplify the offensive playbook in order for his fourth-string QB to be effective.
”You have to,” Smith said. “You can’t run all the plays you would with a fifth-year (player) like Brandon Peters.”
He was pleased with Taylor’s performance. “When you’re fourth on the depth chart, you don’t get to make a lot of plays in practice. With another week of practice, he should in better shape going into the Minnesota game.”
Taylor said he learned on Thursday he would likely play. “I was ready. I was locked in. I just need to build on my performance today.”
Purdue: Did what it had to and came away with a solid win over a team that wasn’t expected to put up much of a fight, even with its starting roster intact. O’Connell and Bell looked solid and should give the Boilermakers a chance to be in most of their remaining games.
Illinois: The game was frightful for the Illini. A rash of COVID-19 positive results and the first-quarter injury to fill-in starter Robinson left Illinois with fourth-string QB Taylor, who was lifted for one play in the second half after being sacked. He was replaced for one play by true freshman Deuce Spanner, before limping back onto the field. Things look bad for Illinois the next couple of games.
Purdue: Scheduled to travel to Wisconsin Nov. 7. It’s not clear whether Wisconsin, whose game with Nebraska was canceled this week, will be cleared to play.
Illinois: Hosts Minnesota, a surprise winner at Maryland on Friday, on Nov. 7. Most of the Illinois players out with COVID-19 are expected to miss that game, as well.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)