CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Illinois football team has had a successful and hard-working offseason, and now it’s time to put their work to the test.
The Illini start their 2022 season Saturday at Memorial Stadium against an unranked Wyoming Cowboys team, looking to make even greater strides than they did last year.
Illini head coach Bret Bielema is very upbeat and excited for the new faces in his squad and coaching staff.
“People will come and support what they’re proud of,” Bielema said. “This will be an environment that people will be excited to watch.”
However, Bielema knows not to underestimate his opponent, and he harped on the importance of this weekend’s game in Monday’s press conference.
“We have a very difficult assignment on Saturday,” Bielema said. “They may be even better than the UTSA program we faced last year.”
One of the key parts of that UTSA team that shocked Illinois on its home field in 2021 was the offensive coordinator Barry Lunney. However, Lunney will now be coaching on that same field for the very team he beat less than a year ago.
Since taking the Illinois OC job after Tony Petersen was fired in January, Lunney has made strides with the Illini offense. When asked about the significance of coming back to Memorial Stadium after his tenure at UTSA, he stressed the importance of being focused on the job at hand.
“That’s long behind us in my mind,” Lunney said. “I’m excited about being with this group of coaches and players, and putting our best foot forward against a good Wyoming team.”
Although Bielema has only worked with Lunney for a short time, his opinion could not be higher of him. Beliema believes he has the tools that Illinois is looking for.
“There isn’t anything Barry Lunney says or does that hasn’t been thought of,” Bielema said. “He’s very calculated.”
He’s been most impressed by Lunney’s communication with the players in his limited time with the team.
“It gave me the indication that he was reaching them on a much higher level than we’ve ever been able to do.”
Battle of the QBs
With the team facing Wyoming in just a few days, most Illinois fans seem to be wondering the same thing: Who will be the starting quarterback on Saturday?
Bielema and the rest of the coaching staff have yet to reveal who will be behind the shotgun against Wyoming, and they believe that allowing the results to be shown on gameday will yield the best outcome. However, they already have a player in mind.
“I know who the starting QB is, the starting QB knows who he is, and the team knows that,” Bielema said.
Bielema did relay that he has narrowed down the competition to Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito and returning QB Artur Sitkowski.
When discussing Sitkowski’s journey with this team in the past few years, Bielema mentioned the discussion he had with him when Brandon Peters was given the job on opening day last season. His response about Sitkowski’s mentality may give some clarity on the situation.
“Art’s reaction then was the same as it is right now,” Bielema said. “He wants Illinois to be successful.”
Regardless of which QB is given the go, both players have shown great improvements. Lunney discussed DeVito’s character and what he’s seen so far.
“I think what’s unique about [Tommy] and Art is their experience,” Lunney said. “He’s played a lot of football and seen a lot of things, and that’s really made him into who he is.”
Illinois will host Wyoming at Memorial Stadium this Saturday at 3 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.