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Illini Athletics 2022: Second Half Year-in-Review

The final six months of ‘22 gave Fighting Illini fans plenty to celebrate.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Virginia at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s almost time to flip the calendar to 2023. But before we do, let’s recap some of the highlights of the second half of 2022.

Fighting Illini football and women’s basketball are in the midst of a rapid rebuild, and there was a plethora of needle-moving, noteworthy stories across Champaign and the entire Big Ten.

In case you wanted to check out the first half of 2022, look here. Otherwise, let’s begin in July!

Jul. 14: Former Illini Michael Massey is called up by the Kansas City Royals. The infielder made his MLB debut the following day, and recorded his first major league hit on July 16.

Massey, a fourth-round pick of the Royals in 2019, slashed .324/.367/.485 in three seasons at Illinois.

Jul. 14: The Big Ten acknowledges 93 Illini student-athletes as Distinguished Scholar Award recipients.

To qualify, honorees must have earned Academic All-Big Ten recognition in the previous academic year, must have been enrolled full time at the university for the entire previous academic year & earned a minimum GPA of 3.70 or better during the previous academic year.

Jul. 19: Fighting Illini Cole Kirschsieper & Justin Janas are chosen on the final day of the Major League Baseball draft. Kirschsieper, a left-handed starting pitcher, was selected in the 12th round by the Miami Marlins (352nd overall). Janas, a first baseman, was drafted just 13 picks later (365th overall) by the Atlanta Braves.

Both Kirschsieper & Janas were voted Second Team All-Big Ten in 2022, and Janas was the conference’s best hitter in 2021 with a .391 batting average.

Jul. 26: Illinois football announces that assistant coach Ben Miller will remain on medical leave for the duration of the 2022 season. Miller was diagnosed with colon cancer in February.

Jul. 26: Former three-time National Coach of the Year Petros Kyprianou is hired as the new director of Illinois track & field and cross country.

Kyprianou served in the same role at the University of Georgia for six seasons, guiding the Bulldogs to a pair of NCAA titles (2018 men’s outdoor, 2018 women’s indoor), as well as three runner-up performances, and a total of 16 top-ten NCAA finishes.

Aug. 7: Illinois basketball commit Skyy Clark shares this photo on social media, making us wonder how many other celebs and/or superheroes we’d want to see donning the Orange & Blue.

Aug. 18: The Big Ten agrees to a new media distribution deal with CBS, Fox, and NBC beginning in 2023. The 7-year contract is worth a reported $7-8 billion, and ends the league’s 40-year broadcast partnership with ESPN.

Aug. 23: The university partners with Opendorse to launch The Illinois Marketplace, an NIL platform designed to help maximize opportunities for current Fighting Illini athletes. AD Josh Whitman said in a statement:

“We are excited for the introduction of the Illinois Marketplace. This new initiative is the best solution for those looking to enhance their company platforms using Illinois student-athletes.”

Aug. 27: Illinois football begins the 2022 season with a dominant 38-6 win over the Wyoming Cowboys.

The Illini outgained the Cowboys 475-212 & held Wyoming to just 10 first downs and 30 passing yards, while Chase Brown paced Illinois with 157 rushing yards and three total TDs.

Aug. 28: Four-star 2023 forward Amani Hansberry commits to Illinois basketball.

Sep. 2: Illinois football opens Big Ten play with a 23-20 loss at Indiana. Did anything notable happen that night? Nope, can’t think of anything!

Sep. 10: Fighting Illini football dominates defensively in a 24-3 win against the Virginia Cavaliers, avenging last season’s loss in Charlottesville.

Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong, who torched Illinois for 400+ yards and 5 touchdowns in 2021’s matchup, was limited to 13-of-32 passing for 180 yards and 2 INTs.

Sep. 22: Illinois improves to 3-1 with a 31-0 shutout of Chattanooga at Memorial Stadium. QB Tommy Devito threw for a season-high 329 yards and 3 TDs, and Barry Lunney’s offense had a historic night:

Sep. 30: 2023 four-star guard — and former Purdue commit — Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn commits to Brad Underwood & the Fighting Illini.

Oct. 1: The Fighting Illini rout the Wisconsin Badgers, 34-10, in Bret Bielema’s return to Madison and Illinois’ first victory at Camp Randall Stadium since 2002.

The Illini defense picked off Badgers’ QB Graham Mertz twice and totally stifled Wisconsin’s run game, allowing just TWO total rushing yards on 24 attempts.

Wisconsin would go on to fire head coach Paul Chryst in the aftermath of this loss. Slowly, the axis of power in the B1G West began to tilt...

Oct. 8: Playing without an injured Tommy DeVito for much of the game, backup QB Art Sitkowski helps guide Illinois to a nail-biting 9-6 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes. Fabrizio Pinton knocked through three field goals, Chase Brown rushed for 146 yards, and the Illini defense held the Hawkeyes to just 52 rushing yards.

The Illini defeated Wisconsin & Iowa in the same season for the first time in 33 years — 12,026 days, to be exact.

Oct. 9: Following the victory over Iowa, the Fighting Illini are voted No. 24 in the AP poll, their first football ranking since 2011.

Oct. 12: Former Illini wrestler Jon Llewellyn dies at age 53. Llewellyn competed at Illinois from 1988-91, and was a three-time All-American, three-time conference champion, and 1991 NCAA Heavyweight champion.

Oct. 13: Illinois announces plans for a new, $14 million wrestling training center. Groundbreaking is scheduled for spring 2024, with completion expected in late 2025.

Oct. 15: Illinois football becomes bowl-eligible for the first time since 2019 with a 26-14 Homecoming win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Chase Brown recorded his second-highest rushing total of the season with 180 yards on 41 carries.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois
Chase Brown totaled 180 rushing and 53 receiving yards versus Minnesota on October 15.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

That victory marked the first time the Fighting Illini had beaten Wisconsin, Iowa & Minnesota in the same season since 1983.

Oct. 17: Five Illini players — tailback Chase Brown, defensive linemen Gabe Jacas & Johnny Newton, and DBs Quan Martin, & Devon Witherspoon — are named mideseason All-Americans.

Oct. 23: Illinois soccer overcomes a 2-0 halftime deficit to force a 2-2 draw with Minnesota in the season finale. Makala Woods helped author the Illini comeback thanks to this magnificent goal in the 87th minute:

Oct. 24: Illinois men’s basketball announces that sophomore Luke Goode will be out indefinitely after suffering a foot injury during a scrimmage with the Kansas Jayhawks.

Oct. 26: Volleyball notches its biggest win of the 2022 season, upsetting No. 11 Penn State in four sets at Huff Hall. The win also marked head coach Chris Tamas’ 24th against a ranked opponent at Illinois.

Oct. 29: Bret Bielema’s Illini win their sixth consecutive game, dispatching the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 26-9, in Lincoln.

Ryan Walters’ defense created four Nebraska turnovers and held the Huskers scoreless in the second half. All-Big Ten wideout Trey Palmer was held to one (1) catch for one (1) yard.

Sydney Brown recorded six tackles and a pair of INTs, while twin brother Chase ran 32 times for 147 yards. “Big Time” Tommy DeVito also had one of his finest games of the season, completing 20-of-22 passes for 179 yards and two TDs.

Oct. 30: Golf alum Thomas Detry finished second at the PGA Tour Bermuda Championship.

Oct. 30: Illini football reaches its highest ranking of the season, jumping to No. 14 in the AP Top 25 poll.

Nov. 1: Illinois is selected No. 16 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, its first-ever appearance in the CFP rankings.

Michigan State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Nov. 5: Redshirt junior wrestler Zac Braunagel takes the 197-pound championship at the Michigan State University Open.

Nov. 5: Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. agrees to a contract extension, keeping him in Champaign-Urbana through the 2025 season.

Nov. 7: No. 19 Illinois opens the 2022-23 men’s basketball season with an 87-57 win versus Eastern Illinois. Coleman Hawkins (23 pts, 12 rebs) and Dain Dainja (17 pts, 10 rebs) registered double-doubles in the blowout win. Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 24 points in his Illinois debut.

Nov. 8: Illinois head baseball coach Dan Hartleb agrees to a four-year extension through the 2027 season. Hartleb is second in school history with 507 wins.

Nov. 9: Former Illini DB Kerby Joseph is named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Joseph, a 3rd-round draft pick in 2022, intercepted Aaron Rodgers twice in the Detroit Lions’ 15-9 win over the Green Bay Packers.

Nov. 11: Dain Dainja leads the Fighting Illini with 20 points, 15 rebounds, and five blocks in a 86-48 romp over UMKC.

Remarkably, Illinois started the game 1-for-18 from the floor...and still won by 38.

Nov. 14: Illinois shoots 77% and scores 63 points in the first half en route to a 103-65 rout of Monmouth at State Farm Center.

Nov. 18: The Fighting Illini overcome a 15-point deficit to take down No. 8 UCLA, 79-70, in the opener of the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas. Illinois outscored the Bruins 51-33 in the second half.

Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 29 points, recorded 10 rebounds, and shot 8-of-9 from three-point range in the victory.

NCAA Basketball: Continental Tire Main Event-Illinois at UCLA Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 19: The No. 3 Michigan Wolverines narrowly avoid an upset, kicking three field goals in the fourth quarter in a 19-17 comeback win over Illinois in Ann Arbor. The Illini were unable to play spoiler to Michigan’s CFP hopes, but held the Wolverines to their lowest point total of the season.

In that same game, Chase Brown rushed for 140 yards, setting a single-season program record for 100-yard games (10) and tying Robert Holcombe’s school record for career 100-yard outings (16).

Nov. 20: The No. 19 Fighting Illini fall to the No. 16 Virginia Cavaliers in the title game of the Continental Tire Main Event, 70-61.

Nov. 26: Ryan Walters’ defense forces six turnovers in Illinois’ 41-3 win over the Northwestern Wildcats. Sydney Brown scored a pair of defensive TDs, while his twin brother Chase Brown rushed for 61 yards and a touchdown to finish with a Big Ten and Power Five-leading 1,643 yards.

Also, offensive guard Alex Palczewski started the 64th game of his career, the most in program and Big Ten history.

Illinois entered the game with an outside chance of playing in the B1G Championship, but Purdue clinched the West Division title by defeating Indiana.

Nov. 28: Sydney Brown is named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week and Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week following his performance against Northwestern — six tackles, two interceptions, a fumble recovery, and two defensive scores.

Nov. 28: Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is named a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to college football’s top assistant coach.

Nov. 29: Brad Underwood earns his 100th win at Illinois as the Fighting Illini defeat the Syracuse Orange, 73-44, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Junior forward Coleman Hawkins also recorded the fifth triple-double in program history (15 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in the victory.

Nov. 29: The Big Ten announces its All-Defensive Team. Ten total Illini received honors, with defensive lineman Johnny Newton, safety Sydney Brown, and cornerback Devon Witherspoon being named to the First Team.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Chattanooga at Illinois
Cornerback Devon Witherspoon finished the regular season with 41 tackles, 3 INTs, and 17 passes defended.
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Witherspoon was also named the Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year as well as a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. “Spoon” became Illinois’ first All-Big Ten corner since Vontae Davis (2008).

Nov. 29: Running back Chase Brown is nominated as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. The redshirt junior finished the regular season atop the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,643) and scrimmage yards (1,883).

Nov. 30: Eight Illini are named to the All-Big Ten Offensive Team. Center Alex Pihlstrom & guard Alex Palczewski were voted to the Second Team, as well as running back Chase Brown (the conference’s leading rusher).

Nov. 30: Outside hitter Raina Terry is unanimously named First Team All-Big Ten for women’s volleyball. The 6-foot-3 junior finished second in the conference with 315 kills and tallied 26 service aces in Big Ten play.

Teammate Brooke Mosher earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. Mosher finished second on the Illini with 226 kills & third with 33 aces and 33 assists.

Dec. 4: Illinois accepts its invitation to the ReliaQuest Bowl against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. It’s the 20th bowl appearance for the Illini, and the program’s first since the 2019 Redbox Bowl.

Coach Bret Bielema said in a statement:

“The ReliaQuest Bowl is a first-class bowl that will give our program an opportunity to play a very good SEC opponent in Mississippi State with a national spotlight in a big-game atmosphere ... This will be a great reward to finish the 2022 season and catapult us into 2023.”

Dec. 6: Former Illini defensive lineman Moe Gardner is enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. A four-time All-Big Ten honoree & two-time First Team All-American (1989, 1990), Gardner was an integral part of Illinois’ 1990 co-Big Ten championship team.

Gardner finished his career in Champaign-Urbana with 18 sacks and a then-school-record 57 tackles for loss, and was elected to the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame in 2020.

Dec. 6: Illinois takes down the No. 2 Texas Longhorns, 85-78 (OT) in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. The Fighting Illini — well, fought — from double-digits down in the last eight minutes to force overtime and complete the comeback.

Terrence Shannon Jr., held scoreless in the first half, scored 12 points in the OT to help lead the Illini to victory.

Dec. 7: Illinois women’s basketball surpasses its win total from all of last season with an 80-62 defeat of Rutgers, as Shauna Green earns her first Big Ten victory as head coach.

Dec. 7: Former Illini standout Vanessa DiBernardo signs a two-year contract with the Kansas City Current of the NWSL. DiBernardo starred for the Orange & Blue, setting program records for shots (325) and assists (22), and was inducted into Illinois’ Athletics Hall of Fame in 2020.

Dec. 8: The duo of Chase Brown & Devon Witherspoon miss out on the Doak Walker & Jim Thorpe Awards, respectively. Brown, along with defensive lineman Johnny Newton, was named Walter Camp Second Team All-America. Witherspoon was voted as a First Team All-American.

Dec. 10: The Illini fall to 0-2 in conference play with a woeful 74-59 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions in Champaign. Penn State shot 50% from three, and the lack of effort caused Brad Underwood to call out his team, specifically Terrence Shannon Jr.

Dec. 12: Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach passes away at age 61, just weeks before the Bulldogs are scheduled to play Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl. According to reports, Leach suffered a heart attack the day after leading his team through bowl practice. He finished his career with 158 victories in 21 seasons as a head coach at Texas Tech, Washington State, and Mississippi State.

TCR’s Thumpasaurus put together an incredible retrospective on Coach Leach HERE.

Dec. 12: Daniel Ribeiro is named full-time head coach of Illinois gymnastics, replacing Justin Spring, who left to join the coaching staff at Alabama. Ribeiro was a three-time Big Ten champion and a two-time national champion on pommel horse (2009, 2011).

Dec. 12: Women’s basketball defeats Butler, 65-63, in Indianapolis, for their second road win of the year. Dayton transfer Makira Cook poured in 22 points and made a bit of history:

Dec. 13: Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is hired as the new head coach of the Purdue Boilermakers. Walters replaced Jeff Brohm, who left West Lafayette to take the head coaching job at Louisville.

Walters was named the 247Sports Defensive Coordinator of the Year and On3 Coordinator of the Year. Under Walters, Illinois’ defense finished in the top 10 in 17 different statistical categories, including leading FBS in interceptions, passing efficiency defense, fewest touchdowns allowed, and fewest yards per pass attempt.

Dec. 14: Running back Chase Brown receives the Jon Cornish Trophy, awarded annually to the most outstanding Canadian player in NCAA football.

Dec. 15: Defensive back Devon Witherspoon is named the 21st consensus All-American in Illinois football history. “Spoon” is the first Illini to receive consensus All-American honors since 2011 (Whitney Mercilus), as well as the first DB in school history.

Dec. 16: Bret Bielema elevates secondary coach Aaron Henry to defensive coordinator, replacing Ryan Walters. The move comes after another Bielema assistant — and presumptive favorite to take over as DC — Kevin Kane left the program to join Walters’ staff at Purdue.

Dec. 17: Sydney Brown & Devon Witherspoon announce they are skipping the ReliaQuest Bowl and declaring for the 2023 NFL Draft.

Brown, a First Team All-Big Ten Selection in 2022, finished this season with 59 tackles and six interceptions (tied for first in FBS).

As previously mentioned, “Spoon” received All-Big Ten First Team honors & vaulted into the Illini record books this season, and has also been projected as a potential late-first-round pick in 2023.

Dec. 20: Head football coach Bret Bielema receives a new six-year contract through the end of the 2028 season, increasing his salary to $6 million annually.

Illinois v Wisconsin
Bret Bielema led Illinois to 8 wins this season, the program’s best mark since 2007.
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Bielema is 13-11 in his first two seasons in Champaign-Urbana, the best two-year start since John Mackovic in 1988-89. Bielema has helped lead the Fighting Illini to five Big Ten road wins, the most by an Illinois head coach in his first two seasons since Lou Tepper (!) from 1992-93.

Dec. 20: French forward Zacharie Perrin joins the men’s basketball roster. The 6-foot-10 Perrin spent the summer competing for his country at the FIBA U18 Championships and began the 2022 season at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas.

Dec. 21: Genesis Bryant (22 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds) records just the third triple-double in school history in women’s basketball’s 81-46 win against Florida Atlantic.

The Fighting Illini led 49-19 at half and 71-29 after three quarters. Illinois notched its 11th win of the season, the most before Christmas in program history.

Dec. 21: Illinois football welcomes 21 new student-athletes to the program during the first day of the national signing period, including seven in-state players — punter Declan Duley (El Paso), linebacker Pat Farrell (Oak Lawn), running back Kaden Feagin (Atwood), LB Jojo Hayden (East St. Louis), OL Brandon Henderson (East St. Louis), OL T.J. McMillen (Naperville), kicker David Olano (Naperville).

TCR’s Pleas Honeywood has more on these 2023 signees HERE.

Dec. 21: Former Illini great Ayo Dosunmu hits a dramatic game-winning putback against the Atlanta Hawks. Remind me again, how many players were picked ahead of Ayo in the draft??

Dec. 22: Running backs coach Cory Patterson accepts an assistant coaching position at Purdue. Patterson was a key figure in building a recruiting pipeline for both Lovie Smith & Bret Bielema, helping lure St. Louis-area prospects like Reggie Love & Isaiah Williams to Illinois.

Dec. 22: The Missouri Tigers avenge last season’s blowout loss with a 93-71 win over No. 16 Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights matchup. Mizzou led 51-27 at halftime, and the Illini shot 1-for-15 from three-point range in the opening half.

It’s Illinois’ largest-ever loss in the rivalry’s history and the Tigers’ first win versus a ranked Illini team since 1999.

Dec. 23: Chase Brown declares for the 2023 NFL Draft, opting out of the ReliaQuest Bowl against Mississippi State. Brown finished second at Illinois in career rushing yards (3,206), fifth in carries (605), fifth in all-purpose yards (3,652), tied for fifth in career yards per attempt (5.3), and third in single-season rushing yardage (1,643) and all-purpose yardage (1,883).

Dec. 23: Men’s gymnasts Connor McCool (floor exercise), Ashton Anaya (still rings) & Ian Skirkey (pommel horse) each earned first-place finishes in the College Gymnastics Association All Star Games.

Dec. 27: Illinois women’s basketball receives votes in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Coaches Poll for the first time since 2010.

Dec. 28: Ayo Dosunmu caps the Chicago Bulls’ epic fourth-quarter comeback against the Milwaukee Bucks with a transition dunk over Giannis Antentokounmpo. this man!

Dec. 29: Women’s basketball ends the calendar year at 12-2 (2-1 Big Ten) following a 79-63 win at Wisconsin. Adalia McKenzie scored a career-best 26 points & Illinois made 22 of its 23 free throws.

With the victory, the Illini get above .500 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2017.

Dec. 29: Men’s basketball wraps up non-conference action with an emphatic 85-52 win versus Bethune-Cookman at SFC. The Illini led by 28 at halftime, holding the Wildcats to 20% shooting.

Dain Dainja scored a career-high 22 points (8-10 FG), and Coleman Hawkins added a double-double (11 pts, 11 reb), as Illinois ended 2022 at 9-4 overall (0-2 Big Ten).

Dec. 29: Former Ole Miss QB Luke Altmyer commits to the Fighting Illini. A four-star recruit in the class of 2021, Altmyer comes to Champaign with three years of eligibility remaining.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound QB appeared in nine games across two seasons at Mississippi, completing 28-of-54 passes for 317 yards, three TDs and three INTs.

Whew! What a ride. 2022 was (mostly) a blast, and I know I speak for Illini fans everywhere when I say I can’t wait to see what the future holds. There’s a lot of excitement brewing in Champaign, and all of us at TCR are thrilled to be a small part of it.

Here’s to many more great memories in the year ahead. Cheers! I-L-L...