Now, if anybody is going to get his old takes exposed, it’s me. A lot has happened in the last six weeks and the team is shaping up to be a lot different than what we thought it would be in late August.
Here is where the Illini stand today.
The OL has struggled.
Other than Injuries, Illinois has had trouble protecting the QB and establishing the run game. A lot of that can be attributed to the shift from Rod Smith’s spread offense to Tony Petersen/Bielema spread offense. The assignments are different, the run game is on the inside and there hasn’t been a consistent group playing every game.
Statistically, Illinois ranks 114/130 in TFL allowed and 101st in sacks allowed, which are last and 3rd to last in the B1G. Due to this, Illinois ranks 121st in longs scrimmage plays of 10+ yards, 122nd in long scrimmage plays of 20+ yards and 101st in long scrimmage plays of 30+ yards. For Illinois to move the ball in the next 6 weeks, the O-line play needs to be different.
They are getting better in the last few weeks, but Purdue’s George Karlaftis was tough to guard and it only gets harder from here on out. Petersen is making adjustments to curate his offense to his personnel, but there is a lot of room for improvement.
I can’t conclude without shouting out Julian Pearl, who will be a centerpiece of the line moving forward.
Luke Ford and Daniel Barker are doing their jobs. Ford is a great run blocker but needs to improve on his pass-catching abilities (although not all his drops are his fault). Barker is an all-out athlete, and now holds the all-time TD record for TEs at Illinois.
Freshman Tip Reiman is a player that Bielema loves but has room to grow and learn to play at a Big Ten pace.
For starters, this group is a lot different than what anybody could have expected in August. Isaiah Williams and Deuce Spann both converted from QB to WR this year and are leading all receivers in yards. Williams is the clear primary target with 28 catches this year. Notre Dame transfer Jafar Armstrong has yet to see the field and the rest of the wideouts are just not that good. To call out the elephant in the room, Illinois doesn’t have a lot of playmakers in this group and unfortunately, there is nobody to throw to them.
Is BP spooked? The staff can say all they want about Brandon Peters showing improvement, but he is just not that good. And fairly speaking, let’s bring out Art.
We have seen 3 games from each BP and Art Sitkowski in the first half of the season. Without first-team reps in practice, Art is leading BP in every statistical category. His stats (611 yards, 6 TD’s, 203.7 yards/game) would land him square in the middle of the pack of all CFB QB’s, putting him just below Purdue’s Jack Plummer, above Auburn’s Bo Nix and Iowa’s Spencer Petras, and well above Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz.
Art is the QB that works in the Peterson/Bielema system. Peters doesn’t even appear on the chart. Peters has also gotten worse every week since he came back from injury.
Injuries have allowed the emergence of the cornerstone of the Bielema rebuild. Josh McCray is on pace to be a feature back for the Illini and is leading the group in rushing attempts this season. Chase Brown showed a resurgence against Charlotte, rushing for the fourth-most yards in Illinois history.
Brown, a sophomore, and McCray, a true freshman, have a lot of ball still to play for the Illini and will be a heavy 1-2 punch for any defense they face.
Both bring different talents to the table. Brown is a shifty back that can break to the outside and has the speed to take it to the house. McCray is a bowling ball that can start 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and spin and stiff-arm his way to a first down. Wisconsin is a disciplined defense that is leading the nation at stopping the run and we will need to use both backs to have success.
Big chance for the Illini to set the standard and punish the Badgers. Tweet me if I'm wrong, but this backfield looks a lot like the John Clay/Montee Ball backfield Bielema had at Wisconsin in 2009.
There will always be an adjustment period. Illinois was tested on defense and has clawed back and shown they can slow opponents down, at least in the last couple of weeks. With the passing game nowhere to be found with Brandon Peters, the running game has emerged and continues to get better each week.
The next half of the season will be tougher than the first half by far. Illinois is 1-2 from my winnable games list, with two more left to play, and 1-2 in “can compete games” with 2 more left to play.
At 2-4, there are not a lot of winnable games left. After readjusting my predictions, there is one winnable game against Northwestern (2-3, 0-2 B1G), but there are games we can compete in: vs. Rutgers (3-2, 0-2), @ Minnesota (3-2, 1-1), and vs. Wisconsin (1-3, 0-2). If the Illini can compete in these games and win, a bowl isn’t out of reach in Bielema’s first season.