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By TERRY TOWERY
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Under a new coach, with fans packed into the stands for the first time since 2019 and its backup quarterback at the helm, Illinois beat Nebraska 30-22 on Saturday to kick off the 2021 college football season.
The Big Ten conference win didn’t come without a price for the Illini.
Illinois starting quarterback Brandon Peters left the game holding his left (non- throwing) shoulder after being sacked hard near the end of the first quarter. He was 3-of-4 passing for 35 yards. He did not return and was replaced by Artur Sitkowski, a sophomore transfer from Rutgers.
Peters’ status wasn’t clear following Saturday’s game. “No injury updates yet,” first-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “But as you could see, it was Brandon’s non-throwing arm, so there’s that.”
Sitkowski engineered several long scoring drives using a balanced attack under Bielema’s new system, which he worked to perfection during a successful tenure at Wisconsin.
Sitkowski was 12 of 15 passing for 124 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I can’t say enough about Art,” Bielema said of his backup quarterback. “You know, from day one he just projected a serious, very direct kind of personality. He walks like a quarterback and he talks like a quarterback. When I see our players rallying around a quarterback like that, well, you know you’ve got something.”
The Illini rushing attack was led by Mike Epstein, who rushed for 75 yards on 16 carries, including a 45- yard run in the first quarter.
Huskers quarterback Adrian Martinez was impressive, racking up 232 passing yards on 16 com- pletions. He had one pass- ing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. Martinez was Nebraska’s leading rusher, with 111 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown.
Gabe Ervin Jr. carried the ball 12 times for 19 yards and Markese Stepp had three carries for 10 yards and a touchdown for the Huskers.
Illinois scored on a defensive gem late in the first half when Keith Randolph Jr. sacked Martinez and knocked the ball loose near midfield. Calvin Hart Jr. scooped it up and scampered 41 yards for an Illini touchdown with less than a minute in the half.
Hart Jr. was injured late in the game and was helped off the field with what appeared to be a left leg injury.
Illinois led 16-9 at the break and took a 23-9 lead midway through the third quarter on a 2-yard touch- down pass from Sitkowski to tight end Luke Ford.
Illinois hosts UTSA on Saturday.