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The Illini are building an identity

Tough, smart, dependable: I’m excited to see where this is headed.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

I’ve been pretty vocal about the culture change in the Illini football program. I saw it manifest itself all preseason. From media days in Indianapolis to the player interviews after practice, the culture shift from bend-don’t-break to tough, smart, and dependable was evident on Saturday afternoon.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 27 Wyoming at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With new players, new coaches, and different lineups, there are always growing pains, but that buy-in from players was evident in Illinois' dominant 38-6 win over Wyoming. It wasn’t perfect, but it set the baseline for 2022. The only way is up from here.

Tough.

College football is the pinnacle of toughness. Being a gritty, first-one-in-last-one-out, lunch-pail type of guy will get you scholarships, playing time, and your name on the big screen.

We usually see this type of thing with completed picks. UNLV has its turnover slots. Miami did it big with its comically large turnover chain. But for the Illini, we have missed-pick pushups:

In a game that was over by the 4th quarter, Illinois had a chance to let its freshmen get reps on the field. DBs Tyler Strain and Matthew Bailey got a chance to see game time after a great fall camp and many accolades from Bielema and DB coach Aaron Henry.

Strain and Bailey didn’t get interceptions, so their hands could use some work (but that's why they are DBs and not receivers!). Still, it's clear that Bielema’s mantra of being tough, smart, and dependable is being adopted by the players, even when the game is over against a lesser opponent.

Smart.

Going into the season I knew that the front seven needed some time to build stability on defense. The law firm of Johnny Newton and Kieth Randolph stood strong, but the outside and inside linebacker positions had to develop as a position group after replacing all but one starter from 2021.

If you read my keys to success in the preseason, I mentioned not letting the passing game over your head and keeping the ball in front of you.

The passing defense was impeccable. The secondary kept QB Andrew Peasley in check, limiting him to a brutal 25% passing, for 30 yards and 1 interception (could have had a few more, but freshmen do freshman things). The second level was tight and indeed kept the ball in front of them.

The front seven needed some work. Against a weaker Wyoming team, they only recorded 1 TFL and no sacks in the game while allowing 7.33 yards per attempt on first downs and 6.90 yards per attempt on second downs.

This can fly against Wyoming, but teams like Wisconsin, Michigan, and even Northwestern will have a field day against the unit.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 27 Wyoming at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But hey—there's something to say for not allowing a TD in your first game as a unit.

Ryan Walters is a smart coach. He knows this and I trust that he’ll have it fixed by Indiana. But as a tough, smart, dependable team, you can’t allow Wyoming to run over you for 182 yards.

This is a part of the growing process and why you schedule games in week 0. I believe that this team is smart enough to figure it out by Friday.

Dependable.

12. Twelve different receivers caught the ball on Saturday. Illinois had 5 players catch more than 3 balls, after having only one player catch more than 3 passes per game since 2015, the last year of Bill Cubit running the offense (I knew this was going to come back around).

The offense overall was nothing sexy. DeVito completed 73% of his passes for 192 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions against a far inferior defense—exactly what we should be seeing. Furthermore, there were only a few drops and most of DeVito’s incompletions were either tough balls or thrown out of bounds.

Over the last decade, we’ve had problems with the QB rolling out of the pocket—too often he’s been sacked or thrown into tight coverage resulting in a drop or interception. The new offense, as rocky as it was, seemed dependable. And that's all I can ask for from a young OL, a new QB, and a new offensive system in its first game.

Wyoming v Illinois Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

You want a dependable offense when your defense suffocates a lesser team. No mistakes, completed passes, and forward progress. If the offense continues this progress on Friday against Indiana, it’ll be a good sign of improvement from 2021.

Closing Points

This is a new brand of football. We are no longer eating lasagna, we no longer have a stale cover-2. We have a team that does pushups after missed picks. We have a team that suffocates a lesser team. We have an offense that can run for 260 yards and still complete passes to 12 different players for 192 more. The Illini have the spunkiness, grit, and swagger to spoil opponents' seasons in 2022.

Though there will be growing pains, especially with the rush defense, there’s no way I’m reconsidering changing my 7-5 record for now.

Illinois did what it needed to do against Wyoming. The Indiana game on Friday should be a tell-all for the rest of the season.