CHAMPAIGN — Good luck getting an update on who will start at quarterback for the No. 24 Illini on Saturday.
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema is keeping that bit of information under wraps after the starter Tommy DeVito left Saturday’s win against Iowa with an ankle injury that Bielema said was an aggravation of a training camp injury.
Arthur Sitkowski entered the game for DeVito and was 13-of-19 passing for 74 yards with an interception. It’s the second consecutive season that Sitkowski has been thrust into the starting role due to an injury. Last season, he stepped in for quarterback Brandon Peters following a Week Zero injury.
When asked if he expected Sitkowski to start against the Gophers (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten), Bielema responded with “good try” as he attempts to keep Minnesota in the dark about the Illini (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) starter.
“Really all the guys who are injured, I don’t think any of them will be season-ending or anything along that line,” Bielema said Monday during his weekly press conference. “I think we are fortunate this week with Minnesota to have the bye week coming out of it that the majority of those guys should all be back in time for our return after the bye week. I don’t know how realistic it is for any of those four or five guys to project into being in this week’s plan.”
If DeVito is unable to play against Minnesota, that would give offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. a week to formulate a game plan together for the Gophers.
“Barry has not experienced Art as a starter. I have,” Bielema said. “They didn’t know Mike Marchese and I kept saying, ‘Wait until we get Mike Marchese back in there and you see what he’s all about.’ Art is a guy who accepts the challenge (whether) he’s going to be the projected starter, the projected backup, his preparation is all the same. It’s not normal. Art is a guy who has my respect from Day 1 a year ago to where we are today and I think the team as well. I said that to the team, ‘Is there anyone here who is surprised by the way Art handled the moment?’ It wasn’t clean by any means. I think he’d be the first to tell you that and I think Barry would as well. Those two working together, I think, was a great learning experience along the way. Wherever that goes or however that transcends, I’m glad we were able to have those moments out of a 9-6 win than vice versa.”
Lunney said that the quarterback change did not drastically affect their game plan against Iowa. Sitkowski connected on big fourth-quarter downfield throws to Brian Hightower oath Jonah Morris to set up Illinois’ game-winning field goal against the Hawkeyes.
“Obviously each of those guys has different strengths and weaknesses and they are different players,” Lunney said. “But dramatically? It’s not dramatically different. It’s more subtly different from the game plan, maybe a certain movement pass or a certain RPO would be better for one or the other. The difference was pretty negligible of what we could or couldn’t do.”
Sitkowski started in place of Brandon Peters last season after Peters was injured in the Week Zero win over Nebraska and has a history of subbing in for an injured quarterback. Lunney pointed to Sitkowski’s preparation during the week for reasons that allowed him to step into the game in big moments.
“This is something that happened a couple of times in my career,” Sitkowski said after Saturday’s win over Iowa. “First at Rutgers and now here I have come in off the bench. It’s something that I have gotten used to being in that role …It’s time to go, do your job and be ready to play.”
What makes Sitkowski able to jump in games on short notice?
“He’s a different breed, he really is,” Lunney said. “He’s unique in who he is. You guys know him when you deal with him. He’s incredibly mature and very polished. He gets it. He doesn’t want to be the backup quarterback but he never lets the fact that he is the two affect his attitude, his intentionality, his engagement, his questions, his preparation. He’s a pro. For being a college young man, he’s been around. He has a lot of experience. I think that’s part of it. He’s seen it. I tell the young guys, and we have four of them, ‘You need to have an appreciation for the way these older guys prepare: Art, Tommy and Ryan.’ It’s not like that everywhere. It’s not like the two and the three to be so supportive and engaged towards the starter and engaged towards me. I don’t know how common that is across college football. I’m sure it happens in places but it’s not always like that. These guys are special in that regard. Art just has that in him. It’s innately in him and I’m thankful that it is.”