The Illinois Fighting Illini enter this week’s matchup with the Virginia Cavaliers at 1-1 — an outcome most fans probably would be okay with had Illinois not lost to UT-San Antonio at home last Saturday. Nonetheless, the Illini look to get back on track against an improving UVA squad. But history is not on Illinois’ side. More on that later.
The Cavaliers are coming off a 43-0 shutout win versus FCS William & Mary in their season opener, and enter this week as a double-digit home favorite against the Fighting Illini. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is in his sixth season at the helm of UVA after a highly-successful 11-year run at BYU in which he won 99 games and led the Cougars to a bowl appearance every season. Under Mendenhall’s tutelage, the Cavaliers went from two to six to eight to nine wins from 2016-19, followed by a 5-5 campaign in the pandemic-affected 2020 season.
Illinois is the visiting team for the first time this season and the only time in non-Big Ten action. Here’s a sneak peek at the other orange & blue team.
The Fighting Illini will face a southpaw starting QB for the second consecutive week. Brennan Armstrong lit up the William & Mary defense for 339 yards on 21-of-31 passing. The 6-foot-2 junior is an accomplished passer — 157-268 (58.6%), 2117 yards, 18 TD/11 INT in 2020 — but also a capable runner, registering 552 yards and 5 rushing TDs last year. The Illini defense should pose a bit more of a challenge than an FCS foe, but Armstrong is the type of quarterback that’s been known to torment Illinois in recent years.
Don’t be surprised to see UVA utilize backup QBs Iraken Armstrong and Keytaon Thompson in rushing and/or receiving packages, as well.
Virginia took a by-committee approach in last week’s victory, with eight players recording carries. That could have been due to a large lead, a modest gameplan by the coaching staff, or both. Senior captain Wayne Taulapapa is the most experienced back of this group, with 916 career rushing yards and 17 TDs.
Receiver Billy Kemp IV finished second in the ACC with 6.7 catches per game in 2020 and was selected to the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list in ‘21. Sophomore wideout Dontayvion Wicks led the Cavaliers with 94 receiving yards last week against William & Mary.
In addition to an array of skill position talent, Virginia boasts one of the best offensive lines in the ACC. The ‘Hoos finished 2020 atop the conference in fewest tackles for loss allowed (4.2) and second in sacks allowed (2.0) per game. UVA is led up front by senior starters Ryan Nelson (LT), Ryan Swoboda (RT), Olusegun Oluwatimi (C) & Chris Glaser (RG).
The Cavaliers held William & Mary to a mere 183 total yards last Saturday. Yes, you can expect the Illini to fare better than the Tribe, but Virginia’s defense hits hard and tackles well. There’s no certified “game-wrecker” like a Chase Young or Aaron Donald on this unit, but the ‘Hoos have plenty of guys who can make you pay and limit big plays.
Junior inside linebacker Nick Jackson was a preseason All-ACC selection & was named to the Butkus Award watch list. The nation’s sixth-leading tackler in 2020 (105), Jackson picked up where he left off a season ago, notching 12 stops against William & Mary. He should definitely be playing on Sundays in the not-to-distant future.
OLB Noah Taylor may not be the tackling machine Jackson is but he’s been the better pass rusher of the two, with 10.5 career sacks to his credit.
Senior corner Nick Grant has 90 career tackles to go along with 15 PBUs and four interceptions. Fifth-year senior safety Joey Blount returns from an injury-shortened 2020. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder has been another stalwart since arriving in Charlottesville, totaling 227 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, 15 passes defensed, and six INTs.
Sophomore Justin Duenkel is in his first season as Virginia’s primary kicker. He connected on both of his field goal attempts and all five PATs versus William & Mary.
Grad transfer Jacob Finn averaged 46.3 yards per punt for the Florida Gators in 2020. Finn booted two punts last week for 90 yards, with a long of 52. He’s good, but he ain’t Blake Hayes (who is?!).
What To Expect
I was struck by something BTN’s Gerry DiNardo said following Illinois’ loss to UTSA — Bret Bielema will only be bringing his core players to Charlottesville. It won’t be the same atmosphere as a home game, where the entire roster dresses and would be on the sideline. DiNardo posited that the Illini could actually benefit from this road trip since there would be fewer distractions and lower expectations. On its face that statement has some merit, but in this case it just sounds like a coach sticking up for another coach.
While it’s true that Scott Stadium doesn’t have the same intimidating aura as playing at Clemson (Memorial Stadium), Florida State (Doak Campbell Stadium) or Virginia Tech (Lane Stadium), the ‘Hoos are an improving team who can’t afford a setback. UVA is 18-2 at home since 2018 and has won nine consecutive non-conference games in Charlottesville. That stat doesn’t bode well for Illinois, which has claimed a whopping TWO non-Big Ten road victories since 2007. So...yeah...don’t get your hopes up.