“Ball security remains the biggest question mark.”
Illinois head football coach Bret Bielema was looking for answers in the Week 2 rematch of last year’s contest against Virginia. The Illini were comprehensively beaten in Charlottesville early last season.
Bielema’s defense answered any question that the Virginia offense asked of it. The final score of 24-3 in favor of Illinois did not tell the entire story.
“For us to be where we are now coming out of this Virginia game compared to last year, especially defensively, tells me a lot about where we are as a program,” Bielema said.
The visiting Cavaliers were 0-for-16 on third downs and averaged only 1.4 yards per carry.
Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong completed just over 40% of his passes for 180 yards, finishing with a Quarterback Rating (QBR) of a putrid 8.3, with 50 being average on a 100 scale.
Kendall Smith and Matthew Bailey had an interception each for Illinois.
Armstrong’s numbers in last year’s contest were a career best. The QB was 27-for-36 (75%) for 405 yards and five touchdowns. Armstrong’s QBR was 92.7, a near perfect score.
There is no question that improvement on the defensive side of the ball glares back at the head football coach.
“This was a big statement to me about where we were a year ago and where we are now.,” Bielema said. “Virginia has new coaches and a majority of their players were there and ours were back, I wanted to see where we were as a program.”
As Bielema pointed out in his victorious postgame press conference, it is not typical to get a rematch of a non-conference game the following season.
A step over a decade in the making.
Here’s a tidbit that seems like it is not factual. It had been over 10 seasons since Illinois had beaten a Power Five opponent not from the Big Ten. This speaks to the duality of what the win meant Saturday for the program, and how steep the climb ahead will be.
“We are doing good things, this is the first Power Five win against a non-conference opponent since 2011. I wasn’t aware of that until now. We are not there yet, but I am excited where we are and where I think we could potentially go,” Bielema said.
In a typical moment of honesty, the head coach repeated a football constant. More games are lost than won in college football.
“Listen, for us to win football games we can’t lose them. We have to do what we have to do. We have to play with an edge,” Bielema said.
Not only did the defense play with an edge overall, but the perimeter of the defense made things happen throughout the game.
The pass rush, aided by exotic blitz schemes, finally got home on the opposing quarterback, amassing five sacks. The Illini defense has nine total tackles for loss, an absurdly high number.
Freshman edge rusher Gabe Jacas joined the party with two sacks of his own. It was easy to see why Jacas won a wrestling state title in Florida as a high school junior, as he wrestled Armstrong to the ground inside the pocket.
Bielema took notice of the production of Jacas and other young players that made the most of their opportunity.
“You saw Gabe (Jacas) and these young players get in at corner, I saw Kenenna (Odeluga) and Dylan Rosiek. We get some young players in there and that’s how you build things,” Bielema said.
Ball security overshadows Brown and Williams.
Chase Brown had 146 yards on only 20 carries, and it was barely mentioned on the broadcast or in the postgame press conference. Brown did something one other Illinois running back has done — rush for 100+ yards in each of his first three games.
Punt returner Isaiah Williams averaged over 14 yards per return, and had his longest called back on a correct block in the back call that did not have bearing on the play. Williams provides an electric element that does not go unnoticed.
Neither do the teachable moments. Bielema relishes the opportunity to get back to the basics during the bye week, particularly on offense.
“For us to have the correctable moments we had today, to persevere and play that way. This bye week couldn’t have come at a better time. I really like the way our schedule lays out to have this week to recoup and get ourselves back to fundamental football, especially offensively,” Bielema said.
Illinois had two turnovers in the opening minutes of the game. Kicker Caleb Griffin missed two makeable field goals. A fumble by wide receiver Pat Bryant at the goal line to keep more points off the board. Illinois committed four turnovers officially, and Virginia dropped a number of sure interceptions.
Bielemma will likely focus on ball security during the bye week.