Coming into Week 0, expectations are high for the Illini football team, which is entering their second season under head coach Bret Bielema.
They open the season against the Wyoming Cowboys at home Saturday afternoon—let’s preview the opposing team before the match.
Wyoming So Far this Season
Last season, the Cowboys went 7-6 and beat Kent State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. They only went 2-6 in their Mountain West conference play but were undefeated in non-conference competition. Coach Craig Bohl returns for his ninth year and hopes to build upon last season’s bowl win.
In the offseason, the Cowboys’ offense was hit hard by the transfer portal. Wyoming lost both starting quarterbacks, their leading wide receiver, and their top rusher. The Cowboys will be attempting to fill the holes they lost on offense with young inexperienced players who will need time to develop.
On the defensive end, however, the Cowboys had a productive offseason, returning most of the production from last season (though they lost a few Power 5 transfers). While it’s a bit of a transition year for the Cowboys, they still pose a tough challenge to the Illini.
3 things to watch out for from the Cowboys
The Cowboys lost starting quarterbacks Sean Chambers and Levi Williams to the transfer portal, and they don’t have a clear replacement. It’s a toss-up who gets the starting job for the Cowboys against Illinois, and their starter could change game to game.
The lead candidate for the Cowboys is Andrew Peasley, a transfer from Wyoming’s rival Utah State. Besides Peasly, no other quarterback option has D1 experience. Evan Svoboda transferred from a junior college and had a productive spring game where he impressed coaches with his arm strength. Hank Gibbs is a freshman known for his football IQ.
All the Illini need to care about is this: whoever Wyoming starts will be an inexperienced signal-caller. The defense will need to capitalize on that to win.
Though there may be hesitation about Wyoming’s quarterback situation, the line protecting him should prove to be one of the Cowboys’ strengths—as it historically has been for the program.
Last year, the Cowboys gave up 22 sacks, tied for 31st in the country and second best in the Mountain West Conference. At the guard position, Nofoafia Tulafono is a redshirt sophomore who is looking to make an immediate impact. Throughout the rest of the line, the Cowboys have plenty of depth.
For the Illini D-line, getting to the quarterback will rattle the inexperienced starter. To do so, though, they’ll need to overcome a formidable set.
Another strong part of the Cowboys is their defense, which successfully stalled the opposing offense last season, allowing a respectable 23.6 PPG and 189.6 passing yards per game.
Although the Cowboy defense lost a handful of Power 5 transfers to the portal, they return DE Oluwaseyi Omotosho and NT Cole Godbout. The Cowboys’ coaching staff is known for their player development, which will help fill the holes left by transfers.
The Illini offense lacks talent in the passing game so they will rely on the running game. The Cowboy defense will challenge Illinois and attempt to force them into 3rd-and-long situations where they will need to throw to ball to get yards.
3 impact Wyoming players
Before transferring to Wyoming, Peasley was the backup at Utah State for two years. During his limited playing time at Utah State, Peasley showed explosiveness using his legs—including a 62-yard rushing touchdown against New Mexico.
Wyoming QB Andrew Peasley has received praise from teammates and coaches for his ability to stay even-keeled. He says this wasn't the case early in his career, but learning from former Utah St./current Packers QB Jordan Love helped him a lot.— Josh Criswell (@criswell_sports) August 23, 2022
"He was the same guy all the time."
There are many questions about Peasley’s arm strength and week-to-week consistency, but he’ll probably be the starting quarterback going into week 0. Peasley is a crucial member of the Cowboys: if he is not playing to be best of his ability, then the rest of the team will struggle.
Gibbs is a linebacker returning for his sophomore season. Last season, he was the team’s second-leading tackler behind Chad Muma (a third-round selection for the Jacksonville Jaguars).
Gibbs had 90 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks in 2021. He was a Honorable Mention for the All-Mountain West Team by Pro Football Focus.
Gibbs has shown talent and consistency which the Cowboys will rely on.
Sween is a running back entering his junior year. Last season, he rushed for 785 yards and averaged 60.4 yards per game as the backup. He was named to the Second Team All-Mountain West by Pro Football Focus.
Sween is an explosive running back who has scored two touchdowns of 87 yards or longer. Because of the relative inexperience of the quarterbacks, Wyoming will rely upon Sween to produce most of the offense, especially towards the beginning of the season.
So what happens?
Neither team has a sizeable advantage over the other. In the past few seasons, Wyoming has had significantly more success than the Fighting Illini—but they come into this season with sizable losses to the transfer portal and questions on the offensive end.
The Illini also have questions at the wide receiver and quarterback positions. This game will be a defensive battle with each team relying on their running game to gain yards.
Much will come down to the quarterback duel between Tommy Devito and Andrew Peasley. Though either could generate enough offense to launch their team to victory, Devito has a slight advantage from his experience at Syracuse and arm strength.
At the end of the day, this game is a toss-up; expect a game that could go down to the final few minutes.