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Previewing Illinois’ 2021 Conference Slate

Once again, the Illini face an uphill battle against tough conference opponents.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois’ record against Big Ten opponents over the past decade has been, to put it generously, less than stellar. But Bret Bielema and the Illini have a chance to get the program moving in the right direction in 2021.

With the season-opening matchup against the Nebraska Cornhuskers being Week 0 and already having been covered extensively on this site, we’ll start our preview with the subsequent conference opponent.

Maryland Terrapins - Sept. 17 (Friday)

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8)

2020 Record: 2-3

Head Coach: Mike Locksley (3rd Season)

The Illini have only faced Maryland once since it joined the Big Ten, and that was a crushing 66-33 defeat at the hands of the Terps in 2018. Since that time, Maryland replaced D.J. Durkin as head coach with former Illini and Alabama Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. Since taking over in 2019, Locksley has compiled a record of 5-12 (4-16), with significant COVID issues limiting Maryland to only five games in 2020.

Owing to Locksley’s Alabama connections, Taulia Tagovailoa transferred to Maryland in 2020. Tagovailoa, the brother of Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua, has star-caliber talent in his own right. The former four-star recruit had offers from almost all of the top programs in the country, and in four games last season with the Terps, he passed for 1,011 yards along with seven touchdowns against seven interceptions. He isn’t much of a threat on the ground, with only 44 yards rushing over those four games.

All three of Tagovailoa’s top receiving targets from 2020 are set to return in ‘21: wide receivers Dontay Demus, Rakim Jarrett, and Brian Cobbs. On the ground, the Terps lost 2020 leading rusher Jake Funk, and no other player in 2020 rushed for more than 100 yards, so the strength and identity of their rushing attack will likely be a question mark. On defense, Maryland returns its second- and third-leading tacklers, defensive back Jordan Mosely and linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay, respectively.

Purdue Boilermakers - Sept. 25

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

2019 Record: 4-8 (3-6)

2020 Record: 2-4

Head Coach: Jeff Brohm (5th Season)

After a hot start to his tenure in West Lafayette, Jeff Brohm now finds his seat starting to warm up after a pair of disappointing seasons. Illinois lost a close home matchup to the Boilermakers in their most recent meeting last season. With the Cannon in West Lafayette and an Illini roster filled with talent and experience, expect Illinois to try to make a statement win in this year’s matchup.

At quarterback, Aidan O’Connell started the first three games of the year in 2020 and led Purdue to victories against Iowa and at Illinois before he went down with an injury against Northwestern. O’Connell passed for 916 yards and seven touchdowns against two interceptions last season. Jack Plummer started the final three games of the season and put up a similar stat line. Expect the fifth-year senior O’Connell to start for the Boilermakers in 2021 as long as he’s healthy.

Purdue’s leading rusher in 2020 was now-fifth-year senior Zander Horvath, who rushed for 442 yards and two touchdowns on 89 attempts (~4.9 ypc). Leading receiver David Bell also returns and looks to follow up his impressive 2020 performance of 625 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Rondale Moore, Purdue’s second-leading receiver in 2020, opted to declare for the NFL Draft and was a second-round selection by the Arizona Cardinals. On the other side of the ball, Purdue returns their second- and third-leading tacklers from last season, linebackers Jaylan Alexander and DaMarcus Mitchell.

Wisconsin Badgers - Oct. 9

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2019 Record: 10-4 (7-2)

2020 Record: 4-3

Head Coach: Paul Chryst (7th Season)

The much anticipated showdown between Bret Bielema and his former employer is sure to become a top storyline in the conference as Oct. 9 approaches. With the eyes of the league on the Illini, and it once again being homecoming weekend, Illinois fans would like nothing more than to defeat the Badgers twice in three years. That said, the Badgers are again showing up with their usual stellar lineup and phenomenal talent.

Wisconsin’s offense is led by Graham Mertz under center, who torched the Illini in historic fashion last season, going 20-for-21 on passing attempts for 248 passing yards and five touchdowns in his first career start. Mertz set the Wisconsin football single-game completion record against the Illini last year, and his five passing touchdowns tied the single-game Wisconsin football record in that category as well. After that humiliating performance, expect Chryst to try to put the game away through the air until or unless the Illini defense can stop him.

Jalen Berger led the Badgers’ rushing attack last season with 301 yards and two touchdowns, but Wisconsin’s traditionally strong ground game will be hampered by the loss of Nakia Watson and Garret Groshek. Defensively, Wisconsin lost their two leading tacklers, who alone contributed over a quarter of the team’s total tackles from last year. Attempting to replace their contributions will be senior safety Collin Wilder and linebacker Nick Herbig.

Penn State Nittany Lions - Oct. 23

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2)

2020 Record: 4-5

Head Coach: James Franklin (8th Season)

Illinois will have a much-needed bye week between the Wisconsin and Penn State games, and they’ll need every advantage they can get to sneak out with a win in Happy Valley. James Franklin has finally built a perennial conference title contender in State College, and they’ve come a long way as a program from the last time Illinois defeated them in 2014.

Redshirt-junior Sean Clifford will begin the season as the starting quarterback. Clifford threw for 1,883 yards last season, which was good for 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions. With luck, Illinois defensive backs like Tony Adams and Devon Witherspoon can take advantage of Clifford’s accuracy issues and land some interceptions. The Nittany Lions will start two COVID-waiver freshmen at wide receiver this year: KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Parker Washington. They were the fifth and second leading receivers for Penn State last season, behind returning leader Jahan Dotson, who had 884 receiving yards and eight touchdowns last year.

Franklin’s defense will return its top-three tacklers from 2020: junior middle linebacker Ellis Brooks (60 tackles), junior outside linebacker Jesse Luketa (59), and senior safety Jaquan Brisker (57). No one else on the defense had more than 40 tackles last season, so these three will certainly form the core of the Nittany Lions defense in 2021.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights - Oct. 25

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2019 Record: 2-10 (0-9)

2020 Record: 3-6

Head Coach: Greg Schiano (2nd season, 13th season overall)

The Scarlet Knights come to Champaign on the last weekend in October looking to avenge their 23-20 loss last season in Piscataway, and Greg Schiano’s Rutgers program is already showing night-and-day differences from Chris Ash’s tenure. Schiano’s three conference wins in the reduced season last year alone matched the number of conference wins that Rutgers had in the four seasons under Ash. The changes aren’t only being felt on the field but also on the recruiting trail, as well: Rutgers’ 2022 recruiting class is currently ranked 4th in the conference, behind only Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan.

With now-Illini quarterback Art Sitkowski leaving the Rutgers program at the end of last season, the path is cleared for Noah Vedral to take the reins as the starting quarterback if he can stay healthy. Vedral threw for 1,253 yards and nine touchdowns against eight interceptions last year, and his favorite target last year was senior wide receiver Bo Melton, who racked up 638 receiving yards and will return in 2021. Returning junior running back Isaih Pacheco led the team with 515 rushing yards along with three rushing touchdowns.

Defensively, junior safety Christian Izien was the most dominant player on the field for Rutgers last season. Izien finished the season with four interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and 66 total tackles. Senior linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi led the team in tackles last season with 101. He returns with a bevy of preseason honors in 2021, including being named to the Preseason All-Big Ten First Team by both Phil Steele and Athlon Sports, as well as to the watch lists for the Bednarik, Butkus, and Nagurski Awards.

Minnesota Golden Gophers - Nov. 6

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2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2)

2020 Record: 3-4

Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (5th Season)

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck has a nearly perfect record against Illinois, stretching back to his days as the head coach of the Western Michigan Broncos. In his fifth season at the helm in Minneapolis, Fleck brings yet another experienced and motivated roster to town against the Illini.

On offense, Minnesota returns a number playmakers at several different positions led by the ninth-leading rusher in Minnesota history, Mohamed Ibrahim. Last season Ibrahim rushed for an incredible 1,067 yards and 16 touchdowns in the limited season, earning him Big Ten Running Back of the Year and All-Big Ten First Team honors in 2020. He looks to repeat that performance in 2021, and is the main player to stop for Illinois’ defense. Senior quarterback Tanner Morgan will likely return as the starter this year, after passing for 1,374 yards and seven touchdowns last season.

The Gopher defense will likely be led in 2021 by Mokena, Illinois native and senior linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, who led the team with 54 tackles and a forced-fumble in 2020. Defense could be a bit of a weakness for Minnesota, as relatively few returning players aside from Sori-Marin stand out in the roster.

Iowa Hawkeyes - Nov. 20

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2019 Record: 10-3 (6-3)

2020 Record: 6-2

Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (23rd Season)

Like Wisconsin and Northwestern, the Iowa Hawkeyes are a marvel of consistency in the ever-changing world of college football. Bret Bielema’s Illini squad will travel to Iowa City looking to defeat the Hawkeyes for just the third time in the 21st Century. And as it’s been in the past, the odds will again be stacked against the Illini.

Starting at quarterback for Iowa this year will be Spencer Petras, a sophomore from California. Petras threw for 1,569 yards last year, which was good for nine touchdowns against five interceptions. Senior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette led the team in receiving yards last season with 345, and he returns this year to build on his success. The leading rusher from last season, sophomore Tyler Goodson, also returns this year after rushing for 812 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020.

Iowa’s defense will be helmed by Illinois-native and senior linebacker Nick Niemann, who led the team by a wide margin with 77 tackles and 2.5 TFLs last year. Niemann’s total tackles were nearly double the next leading tackler, sophomore middle linebacker Seth Benson, who also returns in 2021.

Northwestern Wildcats - Nov. 27

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2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8)

2020 Record: 7-2 (6-1)

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (15th Season)

Since being hampered by injuries and poor play in their last full season, Coach Fitz’s Wildcats stormed back in 2020 with an outstanding performance that included a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game and a dominant win over the Auburn Tigers in the Citrus Bowl. Although they’re missing a few key pieces, Northwestern returns much of its production from a year ago and again looks to build on their success.

Peyton Ramsey opted not to use the COVID waiver and will not return to the Wildcats this year, leaving a vacancy at the quarterback position. Potential starters include South Carolina Gamecocks transfer Ryan Hilinski, Clemson Tigers transfer Hunter Johnson, or senior quarterback Andrew Marty. None have ever been consistent starters, so it should present a challenge for Fitzgerald. The Wildcats do return 2020 leading rusher Cam Porter, but many of the top receivers are also no longer with the program.

Pat Fitzgerald’s background is on defense, and Northwestern will also have some holes to fill on that side of the ball with the departures of the top two tacklers from 2020: Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. Linebacker Chris Bergin returns along with sophomore safety Brandon Joseph, but it’s clear that the coaching staff will need to tap into their depth on the roster to keep the defense going strong.