Bielema wants his players to be tough, smart, and dependable. Here are the simple things the Illini should do to find success in 2022 so that we all sing the alma mater before leaving Memorial Stadium.
Keep the ball in front of you
I actually liked the defense a lot last year.
However, there were moments when Ryan Walters’s schemes left me scratching my head. We all know the story—in fact, I quote it quite often—that Illinois’s defense had a turnaround in the last nine weeks of the season.
But that story isn’t as flashy when you look at the stats.
In the first six weeks of the Illini season, opposing teams’ average passing offense was top 25 in the country. Illinois went 2-4. In the last six weeks of the season, opposing teams’ average passing offense was bottom 30. Illinois went 3-3.
Illinois marginally improved, but more importantly, they were playing opponents that were drastically worse in the passing game. We all remember the times Illinois was burned over the top against Virginia, UTSA, Maryland, and Penn State.
Illinois is rebuilding a unit that lost its best players. Sydney Brown (for all his praise) needs to step up alongside Kendall Smith and Quan Martin. I wouldn't be surprised if we see Matthew Bailey in the lineup after receiving much acclaim in the first couple weeks of camp.
You might be asking: what about rushing offense?
Illinois did a fairly good job. As competition improved in the latter half of the season, the law firm of Newton and Randolph kept the pressure on the line and (outside of the Wisconsin game) held the running game at bay.
Slowing teams down on offense will be key to the Illini’s success.
On the flipside, Illinois needs to speed it up on offense.
It’s beating a dead horse so I’ll hit a few topics quickly.
- UTSA 71.7 plays per game, Illinois 65.8 plays per game.
- UTSA 58% passing, Illinois 47% passing.
- UTSA 437 yards per game, Illinois 329 yards per game
- Isaiah Williams, Chase Brown, Tip Reiman, and Tommy DeVito have already mentioned the ball will be spread out more and the play calls will be faster.
I think we're going to see a much better passing game. I’m excited for Brian Hightower, Casey Washington, and Pat Bryant to be more involved in the passing game. This will open up the field for Chase Brown and Josh McCray to get to the second level.
Things are under wraps on schemes and blocking assignments, but I can’t wait to see how this offense reacts against Wyoming.
Open Games With a Score (especially at home)
Throughout last season, the Illini were mediocre in the first quarter, scoring only 4 TDs and 1 field goal overall. The first points in the first quarter came against Charlotte—in Week 9. Dismally, the first touchdown in the first quarter came in Week 11 against Minnesota.
With this new offense, I would be livid to see similar stats. Those first-drive and first-quarter scores set the pace of the game. The Illini were playing catchup all season, from the games against UTSA and Virginia at the beginning of the season to those against Iowa and Rutgers at the end. It was always too little, too late.
Sitkowski and Peters never had the swagger to take over and put points on the board. Lunney and DeVito should refresh the offense, making catchup a thing of the past.
Illinois has a favorable home schedule this year, full of marquee games. They should draw on the home crowd’s energy to start strong every game.
Time and again I saw the Illini fall flat every fall weekend. Standing for hours at the front of Block I—one of 20 fans that would sit through every game. Scoring some points to start the game would be a fresh sight to see.