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With cleaner football, Illinois can have a special season

Talent shined bright against Virginia despite more sloppy play.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Virginia at Illinois Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire // Getty Images

Illinois just won a football game... in dominant fashion?

There’s really no other way to describe what the Illini defense did to the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon. Ryan Walters’ unit absolutely stifled the same offense that did anything they wanted against them in Charlottesville just a year ago.

Illinois won the game 24-3, but it was even more lopsided than that score indicates.

Let’s start with a stat comparison for Virginia’s offense between last season’s matchup and Saturday. Same quarterback, same receivers, same opponent with similar personnel:

Total Yards:

2021 - 556 2022- 222

Passing Yards:

2021 - 423 2022 - 180

Rushing Yards:

2021- 133 2022 - 42

Passing Efficiency:

2021 - 28/40 2022 - 13/36

3rd Down Efficiency:

2021 - 4/10 2022 - 1/16(!!!)

Yards Per Play:

2021 - 7.4 2022 - 3.3


2021 - 42 2022 - 3

Truly astonishing stuff. The same offense that put up 556 total yards and 42 points last season couldn’t get anything going all afternoon. Brennan Armstrong was running for his life on nearly every drop back. Illinois’ defensive backs were draped over a receiving core that was considered to be one of the best in the ACC in almost exclusively straight man coverage. The Illini front stuffed any attempt Virginia made at getting their run game going.

Let’s highlight Devon Witherspoon for a second because he was phenomenal. His primary assignment was Dontayvion Wicks, a guy who finished 4th in the ACC in 2021 with 1,203 yards and 9 touchdowns, and he locked him up. Armstrong started 0-for-8 when targeting his top wideout before finally mustering 2 short completions late in the fourth quarter. Witherspoon finished with 7 tackles, 3 pass breakups, and I imagine PFF will have some good things to say about him when their coverage grades drop Sunday.

Virginia v Illinois Justin Casterline // Getty Images

The Illini pass rush was extremely impressive in a favorable matchup against an inexperienced Virginia offensive line. After mustering up only 1 combined sack through 2 weeks (albeit good pressure numbers against Indiana), Illinois had 5 on Saturday, including 2 from true freshman Gabe Jacas who stepped in and had a great game following an injury to Ezekiel Holmes. The front as a whole combined for 9 tackles for loss after 6 in Bloomington last Friday.

Talent has been evident at all levels of the defense so far in 2022. This is a unit that can finish top 5 in the Big Ten, right up there with the Wisconsins and Iowas of the world. Going forward, however, they’re going to need to be put in even better positions to succeed with cleaner football on the offensive end.

Barry Lunney has proved that his offense can move the ball. Illinois is averaging 439 yards per game so far this season, a number that couldn’t have been imagined under Tony Petersen’s unit that ranked dead last in the conference in 2021.

Illinois has the pieces. Chase Brown ran for another 146 yards on Saturday and looks like a legitimate All-American candidate. The tight end room showed an entirely new facet to the Illini passing offense with 2 touchdowns from Michael Marchese and Tip Reiman. The offensive line had its best showing and appears to be a group that can physically compete with the bodies Illinois will face in the Big Ten.

It’s penalties, turnovers, and kicking mishaps that are holding this offense back from really turning the corner. Illinois had far more opportunities to make this one an even bigger blowout, but continued to shoot itself in the foot with 4 turnovers and 10 penalties. Caleb Griffin also missed 2 field goals, one of which coming from just 31 yards out. With as much improvement as this offense has shown from a year ago, they’ve left many opportunities on the table so far.

Tommy DeVito commanded the offense well but turned it over twice, one on a heavily underthrown ball to Brian Hightower that got intercepted on his first pass of the game and another on a strip sack fumble. If he can pair his poise, pocket presence, and capable arm with good ball security heading into Big Ten play, the Illini offense should have the ability to have sustained success. I can confidently say that this is one of the best throws an Illinois quarterback has made since Nate Scheelhaase was under center:

The issues are correctable ones. That’s what encourages me the most. We don’t have to sit here and wonder whether Illinois’ secondary can cover or whether their defensive line can wreak havoc. We’re not questioning whether they can have a consistent run game and so far, there’s at least an increased level of confidence in the passing attack.

The problems seem to be things that can be fixed over time as this group gets more reps together throughout the season. Bret Bielema and his position coaches will likely spend a lot of time in the film room during the bye week figuring out how to limit the costly penalties. It was an entirely different scheme, yes, but the Illini actually had the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten last season. The personnel on the field has proven they’re capable of playing high level football; it’s the self-inflicted wounds that have to end.

Wisconsin appears vulnerable after a loss to Washington State. Iowa’s offense has been one of the worst in the nation. Illinois already proved it can compete with Minnesota, Purdue, and Northwestern. (No need to even mention “Scott Frost’s” team). The Big Ten West seems to be there for the taking and, with cleaner play, the Illini could be well-equipped to truly make a run.

This can be a special season for Illinois if the stars align. I’m bought in.