Illinois took care of business against Wyoming in Week 0, jumping out to a lead just 41 seconds into the game and never looking back.
While we shouldn’t overreact to anything that happened against a Mountain West squad that returned just 35% of its production from 2021, there’s plenty we can take away from the Illini’s 38-6 demolition of the Cowboys.
Here are my 3 biggest takeaways from Saturday’s impressive performance:
Chase Brown is a PROBLEM
Most Illini fans probably weren’t awfully surprised by Chase Brown’s dominance on Saturday. This is a guy that rushed for 1,005 yards in basically 9 games in 2021, with 2 games of more than 200 yards on the season.
But he was truly spectacular against Wyoming. The senior running back had 19 carries for 151 yards (7.9 YPC) and added 16 receiving yards on 3 catches, tallying 3 total touchdowns on the afternoon. The entire stadium saw exactly what he was capable of on the very first play from scrimmage as he burst through a hole for 38 yards on a drive he’d finish himself on the very next play.
Brown is in for a monster year in 2022. While we saw improvements in the passing game from Tommy DeVito, it’s clear that Barry Lunney’s offense will still heavily feature his star tailback. This is the year that the national media gets to recognize Chase Brown’s greatness. Don’t be shocked if 100+ yard performances become a weekly occurrence.
The Illini secondary is the defense’s biggest strength
Ryan Walters’ defense picked up right where they left off from its breakthrough season in 2021.
Illinois has talent at all levels of the defense. Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton headline a physical front that was very disruptive on Saturday. Calvin Hart Jr. and Tarique Barnes each made plays at inside linebacker as they have in the past.
The star power on this defense, however, comes in the secondary. Illinois held Wyoming to just 30 total passing yards on the day, an almost unheard of number for Illini defenses — no matter who the opponent is.
Devon Witherspoon had the play of the game with an interception in one-on-one coverage in the second quarter, followed by a 40-yard return. He was draped over Wyoming’s top returning wideout Joshua Cobbs all day.
Quan Martin had a fantastic game, leading the team in tackles with 7 and adding 3 pass breakups. Bret Bielema called him a “great eraser” postgame due to his ability to constantly react quickly and clean up plays.
Pair those two with Sydney Brown, who remained a steady anchor, and you’ve got some potential stars on the back end of this Illinois defense. All-Big Ten level stars.
Illinois has more weapons than we thought
I get it, Wyoming is bad and Bret Bielema got to play around with his backups in a game that was out of hand. Still, I thought it was extremely impressive to see 12 different guys catch a pass in Saturday’s game.
Coming into the season, one of the biggest question marks for the Illini was who is going to emerge as the reliable pass-catchers for Tommy DeVito? Well, we got to see a lot of potential options in the season opener.
To nobody’s surprise, Isaiah Williams led the team in targets with 10, hauling in 7 catches for 26 yards in total (which would’ve been more had 2 of his biggest gains not had to come back due to penalties). Beyond him though, a lot of different guys made their presence known in the receiving game.
True sophomore Pat Bryant, a guy the coaching staff has outwardly praised, showed why he can be a reliable weapon now and into the future with 3 catches for 44 yards and his first-career touchdown. He also caught DeVito’s longest ball of the day, a 27-yard completion down the sideline.
Former Miami transfer Brian Hightower also got involved with 4 catches for 32 yards after a tough 2021 season that ended in a redshirt. Casey Washington showcased his hands with a huge third-down catch en route to 26 total yards. Even Northern Colorado transfer Jonah Morris, true freshman Hank Beatty, and walk-on Miles Scott got a share of the distribution.
The Illini may not have another elite playmaker behind Isaiah Williams in the wide receiver room, but Barry Lunney and DeVito should at least has some intriguing pieces to work with. Hopefully it leads to a much improved passing offense from the one that was last in the Big Ten in 2021.