The Fighting Illini are bowl eligible after seven games.
This is not a typo. This is not a delusion. This is not a fever dream.
This is not Harry Potter and the Hallucinogen of the Orange Kool-Aid.
And most importantly, this is not a drill.
We back up.
This has been a special season thus far, and the worst case scenario is that Illinois will go to its first bowl game since 2019.
Bret Bielema’s six wins thus far tied the highest win total of the five-year Lovie Smith era. Coach B reached that threshold in Week 7 of year two.
And it’s not like Illinois is doing this with a fluky set of luck and unsustainable peripherals.
So there is no need to grade this season on the curve.
With the Illini on a bye this week, it’s the perfect time to give some grades and put some respect on the names of the coaches and players who have blessed us with this amazing season.
Coach Bret Bielema is like The Wolf from the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. He came to Illinois with a job in mind. Speed and efficiency were the expectations of a hungry fanbase. And Coach B delivered on that promise even faster than the astronomical expectations speculated that he would.
Think about it this way. Coach Lovie Smith went to one bowl game in five years. During his tenure, Illinois lost by 63 points to Iowa. This year, Iowa didn’t win by nine touchdowns. They couldn’t even muster nine points.
When Lovie Smith was hired, I thought one of his primary assets would be his ability to succeed in recruiting the Chicago suburbs. I thought his faith and reputation in Chicago would resonate with parents of kids in DuPage County. I thought his ties to Halas Hall and NFL pedigree would be a great selling point for kids on the North Shore. I thought his paternal nature and moral character would resonate with the single mothers of sons on the south and west sides of the city of Chicago. And I thought his reputation as a leader and developer of defensive talent in the NFL would open doors to the state’s powerhouse programs.
I was mostly wrong in this assessment.
I was also personally nonplussed when Josh Whitman chose Bret Bielema. I thought an up-and-coming coach like Clark Lea, Brian Hartline, Jim Leonhard or Marcus Freeman would have been a good move. Or, if going with experience, after Luke Fickell’s inevitable rejection, I would have preferred seeing the Illini try to pry Josh Heupel from Central Florida or Billy Napier from Louisiana.
Fickell did say no. Leonhard likely would have also said no.
Freeman and Lea are both discovering the heartless glare of the sunshine instead of the comfort of the shade.
Heupel and Napier are both doing excellent jobs, and both were likely to remain in the south.
But Bielema brought something new to the Illini. Like Lovie Smith, Bret spent years in the NFL. Like Lovie, he was an assistant coach for a Hall of Fame-caliber head man. But Bielema has the kind of Big Ten institutional memory that one doesn’t conjure up. He earned it in Iowa City and Madison.
And now, in Champaign, he has the program CEO role down to a science. The program is winning. His philosophy is working. His message is resonating. And, most importantly to the hungry Illini fanbase, the team is winning.
Needless to say, I was wrong about Coach Bielema, too.
Grade - A
Much was made of the staff Lovie Smith put together. Well-known names like Hardy Nickerson looked poised to bring Lovie ball to Champaign in the best way possible. Illinois was going to force turnovers and win games by controlling the line of scrimmage. Illinois was going to be aggressive on the trail and get the best athletes from the St. Louis Metro area, Florida, and Texas.
That’s not exactly what happened. Eventually, Lovie Smith made a historically catastrophic defensive coordinator hire and the Illinois defense became one of the worst defenses in college football.
Bret Bielema hired Ryan Walters.
So the 2022 Illini don’t have those problems.
As of now, the Illini defense is elite. Brad Underwood would be proud.
- They are getting to the quarterback. They rank sixth in the nation in sacks.
- They are stopping the pass. They are second in the nation in passing defense, first nationally in pass efficiency defense, and lead the nation in interceptions.
- They are stout against the run in a conference built on the ground game. They rank third in rushing defense.
- They are not interested in giving up points. They are the number one ranked scoring defense among all FBS programs this season.
All of these numbers add up to equal the number one total defense in college football.
Ryan Walters, please make room on your shelf for your Broyles Award.
On the offensive side of the ball, Barry Lunney Jr. has turned around last year’s anemic offense. The “tempro” scheme has proven to be fast but powerful. The receiving corps has improved, and while the tight ends haven’t been consistent as pass catchers, the Illini have been able to move the ball.
Also, Coach Lunney’s playcalling has led to a 71%+ conversion rate on fourth down. It’s exciting to know that the coaching staff is so confident in the personnel and scheme. And that was certainly not true last year. The Tony Petersen-led 2021 Illinois offense ranked 116th overall in total offense.
The position coaches have done excellent jobs. Specifically, OLB coach Kevin Kane, DL coach Terrance Jamison, RB coach Cory Patterson, WR coach George McDonald, and CB coach Aaron Henry have coached improved units. This staff is clicking, and promotions (internal and external) are likely to be the primary attrition at season’s end.
Grade - A
Virginia Tech grad transfer AJ Bush was a hammer. He was a huge upgrade of the Illini running game. But he didn’t stay healthy for his full season with Coaches Lovie and Rod Smith.
Michigan grad transfer Brandon Peters was a workmanlike professional. He brought intellectual stability to the position, but had trouble staying on the field. While his presence was always a positive, one bowl game in three seasons isn’t what was expected of the former top-100 prospect.
Tommy DeVito is becoming Coach Bielema’s newest grad transfer home run. The last one is…still “cooking.”
After having moderate success as a starter under former Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers at Syracuse, Tommy D. traded orange and navy for… navy and orange. He wasn’t recruited by Coach Lunney, but the offense has worked efficiently (10 TD/2 INT) with DeVito at the helm. He is spreading the ball around and showing the moxy that is making him a fan favorite. His “Jersey Swag” has the Illini offensive huddle in the best place it’s been since peak Nathan Scheelhaase. If Tommy keeps completing 70% of his passes, the balanced offense will help open up more holes for the Illini backfield. It will also open up more running lanes for DeVito himself, who has run well and vultured multiple touchdowns from Illini running backs.
Grade - A
Speaking of Illinois running backs, this would be a good time to pause and appreciate AP Midseason First Team All-American Chase Brown. Firstly, we should thank Western Michigan University since that’s where Chase transferred from. Right now, Chase is leading the nation in rushing. He is having a season reminiscent of the Mel Tucker contract extension season put up by Kenneth Walker III last year in East Lansing.
3 Power-5 players have rushed for 100 yards in their first seven games and had a 6-1 or better record since 2000.— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) October 19, 2022
Chase Brown #Illini // #HTTO // #famILLy pic.twitter.com/WhcjnBGgio
For the first time in decades, the Illini have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Chase Brown not only has more total rushing yards than anyone in the nation, but according to Pro Football Focus, he leads the country in yards after contact and carries of 10+ yards. He’s breaking tackles for big plays on a regular basis. He’s a home run threat who makes defenders miss on a regular basis. And he’s been carrying an absurd load. Against Minnesota, he had more touches (44) than the Golden Gophers had total offensive plays (42).
Hopefully, the return of backfield hammer Josh McCray will allow Chase to rest a bit more often. McCray’s power, especially late in games against worn down offensive lines, can help the Illini salt away big games in cold weather.
Grade - A
So it hasn’t been perfect. Isaiah Williams struggled mightily with ball security against Iowa. Ultra-talented Shawn Miller hasn’t been able to play all season due to injury. Casey Washington has only caught 10 passes through seven games.
But Williams recovered against Minnesota. His teammates have unshakable confidence in him, and his ability to shake off a poor game is indicative of the mettle and make-up that made him such a highly coveted prospect.
Most missed tackles forced on receptions among Power Five players:— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 19, 2022
Isaiah Williams, Illinois - 20
Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama - 18
Malik Washington, Northwestern - 15
Keytaon Thompson, Virginia - 15 pic.twitter.com/ru3j9QWDdt
Pat Bryant and Brian Hightower have 25 catches apiece, with Bryant emerging as a game breaking big play threat and Hightower becoming adept at moving the chains. This is a group that is growing with its quarterback.
If this group stays healthy, it will continue to be a driving force in an effective, winning offense.
Grade - B+
The Luke Ford receiver breakout hasn’t happened yet this season. And unfortunately, it’s been a bit of a slog for this position group. While Tip Reiman, Ford, and Michael Marchese have shown some blocking prowess in spurts, the lack of explosive playmaking in the passing game has put a greater burden on the Illini wide receivers and backs. This is where the loss of DJ Barker created a huge hole in the roster. Could Henry Boyer, Owen Anderson, or Naivyan Cargill eventually fill the pass-catching tight end role? Perhaps. But as of now, if the Illini passing game wants to hit its full stride, the tight ends have to make more plays.
The entire group has combined for 18 catches this season, and that’s simply not tenable in the Big Ten.
Grade - B-
Almost exactly a year ago, Bret Bielema made some controversial comments specifically pointed at the Illini offensive line.
#Illini Bret Bielema not holding back about his roster today, especially OL:— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) October 18, 2021
"I don't believe we have a player in the 2-deep that they've recruited here over the last 3 years that is really significantly doing anything for us in the playing department, that's a major concern" pic.twitter.com/CSvWn0MmJD
In that specific moment, it was a major controversy. You’d think he choked Neil Reed on the sidelines, slapped an opposing assistant coach, or covered up some form of abuse like other Big Ten coaches who shall remain unnamed have (allegedly) done. It was a “great, we hired that guy” moment. The scandal seemed to dissipate quickly, and the staff in fact didn’t lose the locker room.
Coach Bart Miller deserves a lot of credit this season. Illinois has been able to keep Tommy Devito upright and Chase Brown dominant. They have physically overpowered teams that are known for their dominance in the trenches. The Illini have sixth year returning vets like Alex Palcewski and Alex Pihlstrom. The latter has taken to the center position quite well, posting a 73.3 PFF grade against Minnesota. And junior college transfers Zy Crisler and Isaiah Adams have helped stabilize a line with a lot of hungry young lions from the classes of 2021 and 2022 waiting for their opportunity.
Coach Bielema has a great sell on the recruiting trail for offensive lineman. Names like Frank Ragnow and Joe Thomas ring loudly. So this unit will likely continue to be a strength moving forward.
Grade - A
Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, and Calvin Avery have been more disruptive than ten intoxicated frat guys rolling into undergrad late at night. In the same way that Bart Miller’s crew has dominated the line of scrimmage, Terrance Jamison’s guys are making grown Big Ten linemen look foolish. Avery has resurrected a career that had such promise when he was one of the first big-time commits of the Lovie Smith/Andrew Hayes-Stoker Texas “pipeline.” He’s enabled Newton, Randolph, and a certain true freshman to harass quarterbacks and set up big plays for the nation’s most productive secondary. Trust me, we’ll get there.
But back to the defensive line. Johnny Newton has been named a Mideason First Team All-American by both Pro Football Focus and the Associated Press. While expectations for Newton were high coming into the season, this is an astronomical performance. According to PFF, he leads the nation in quarterback pressures by a defensive lineman (35). Convincing him to flip from his original commitment to Maryland looks like one of the best recruiting coups this program has pulled off in many years. He’s been an anchor for a stellar unit, and his future is likely to involve playing football on Sundays.
Grade - A
When Ezekiel Holmes was injured, Illinois substituted a true freshman. And it wasn’t highly touted in-state prospect Jared Badie. It was another flip: former Tulane-bound superfreak athlete Gabe Jacas.
Even when Jacas has an “off” game, like the Gopher game, he had a sack and a pair of pressures. He’s competing with 22 year-old Big Ten tackles and finding a way to have a highly productive first year in college.
And even with all of the spotlight on Jacas, we can’t ignore former four-star Florida product Seth Coleman. Coleman has come into his own under coach Kevin Kane, and has 3.5 sacks and 26 tackles on the season. The Illini front has true starpower and destructive force.
Grade - A
The linebacker room has been up and down, but mostly up this season. The emergence of former walk-on Isaac Darkangelo has been a revelation for the unit. Along with Tarique Barnes and CJ Hart, this has been solid in stopping some of the conference’s top running backs from controlling the clock and disrupting the Illinois gameplan. The emergence of (spoiler: another flip) former Ivy League commit Kennena Odeluga from Chicago Mount Carmel will add depth and toughness during the dog days of subzero weather.
Coach Andy Buh has been tremendous on the recruiting trail. But make no mistake about it, he’s a tremendous teacher. This group is improving steadily, and will continue to matter a great deal as Blake Corum looms on the horizon.
Grade - B-
Friendly reminder: Chase Brown is not the only #Illini to lead the nation in a statistical category.— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) October 18, 2022
Devon Witherspoon’s 11 pass breakups are tops in FBS.
Devon Witherspoon is getting NFL draft looks.
Quan Martin is having a Kerby Joseph-like renaissance.
Kendall Smith has emerged in his final year as a legitimate turnover threat.
Sydney Brown, the leader of the group, has two tackles for loss, a sack, and a pick.
Taz Nicholson has made it obvious that just throwing away from Witherspoon isn’t the answer to beating the Illini.
And Matthew Bailey is just getting started.
Ryan Walters and Aaron Henry have developed the best secondary in college football right now. They avenged the 2020 Graham Mertz game. They held Tanner Morgan to 21 yards. This group is clicking on all cylinders, and Illini fans should be fired up about the future of this group. They’ve got Florida speed to burn and feisty toughness for days.
Grade - A
Air Force transfer Fabrizio Pinton has been an excellent backup for the injured Caleb Griffin. He’s made all seven field goal attempts, and has steadied the ship, especially in the Iowa game.
While Hugh Robertson struggled early, he is averaging 38 yards per punt and has allowed the Illini defense to win multiple field position battles. Everyone wants him to be Blake Hayes, I get it. But as long as he continues to put the nation’s best defense in position to keep teams pinned deep, his performance won’t rise to the level of complaint.
The Illini haven’t gotten much out of the return game, which seems by design. There have been some ball security issues, especially against Iowa. That is one long-term concern that may need to be addressed in the transfer portal.
Grade - C+
Things are going extraordinarily well. With several winnable games on the schedule, things could get even better. And beating Purdue could mean a division title and a trip to Indianapolis. If you had told me this was a possibility before the season, I would have checked you for track marks.
Slam the gas?
Pump the brakes?
Nah, just enjoy the ride.