Illinois reached a lot of milestones in Thursday night’s blowout victory over Chattanooga.
It was the Illini’s first shutout since 2015. First undefeated nonconference record since 2011. Most total yards in a game since 2018. First time in program history that the team possessed a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers in the same game.
It was also a refreshing sight for Illini fans who, for many years, have had to sweat out these nonconference matchups against lower level competition.
Illinois did what a good program is supposed to do: assert their dominance over an inferior opponent, leaving no doubt about the game’s result from the get-go. Pair this victory with Week 0’s over Wyoming and Illinois outscored their non-Power 5 competition 69-6 this season. Unfortunately, that’s been unfamiliar territory in recent years.
Over the past decade, we all remember the likes of UTSA, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Ball State, and Middle Tennessee coming into Memorial Stadium and either giving Illinois a scare or winning the game outright. Hopefully, the Illini’s dominance over the FCS’s 9th-ranked Chattanooga Mocs marks the end of that trend under Bret Bielema.
Both sides of the ball were clicking from wire to wire under the lights on Thursday night.
Offensively, this performance should greatly boost the confidence level of this group heading into Big Ten play. Tommy DeVito had a huge day, throwing for 329 yards and 3 touchdowns, and I already mentioned that the Illini had three 100-yard performers in Chase Brown, Pat Bryant, and Isaiah Williams.
Much of the offensive success (502 total yards!) can be attributed to Barry Lunney Jr.’s stellar game plan and DeVito’s precision in executing it.
Coming into the game, Chattanooga was allowing just 2.3 yards per carry on the ground thanks in large part to NFL defensive tackle prospect Devonnsha Maxwell’s play up front. It was clear that while Chase Brown would still be a featured part of the offense, the Illini were going to have to get a little more creative in their attempt to consistently move the ball.
Lunney responded with an RPO-heavy attack in the first half that took advantage of the Mocs’ tendency to play over-aggressive in the box, setting up his receivers in one-on-one matchups both at the line of scrimmage and down the field. DeVito looked comfortable and poised running that system all night and his quick release and short game accuracy were on full display. Pat Bryant used this approach to have a career game (6 catches, 113 yards, 1 touchdown), complementing his usual deep-threat ability with some open-field elusiveness that we hadn’t yet seen from him.
While Chattanooga actually had some success slowing Chase Brown down up the middle, the nation’s leading rusher was still able to find and create space out of the RPO game to become the first running back in Illinois history with 5 consecutive games of 100 or more rushing yards.
Through four games, it’s clear that the Barry Lunney hire is paying dividends and has transformed this offense from its one-dimensional 2021. The winner of this season’s Big Ten West, a division known for its defenses and rushing attacks, is going to be the one that diversifies their offense the most. Illinois has at least shown signs that they could be that team.
Defensively, there’s really not much more that can even be said.
The Illini defense has been phenomenal this year and will now get to celebrate a shutout.
Chattanooga quarterback Preston Hutchinson was on his back many times on Thursday night and it felt like the Illinois front was in the backfield on almost every drop back. As a whole, the Illini defense finished the night with 16 pressures, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and 2 takeaways (if only Keith Randolph didn’t cough one of them right back up...).
Here’s how Ryan Walters’s unit ranks nationally through 4 games:
Points Allowed Per Game: T-8th (8.0)
Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 8th (147.2)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 25th (87.3)
Total Yards Allowed Per Game: 8th (214.5)
Takeaways Per Game: 28th (2.25)
A much tougher Big Ten slate awaits, but so far Illinois has one of the better defenses in all of the FBS. That’ll win you a lot of football games. A defense that can be counted on to give you a chance each Saturday — or Thursday in this case — is a welcome change. This group is just awesome.
Things are changing with this Illinois football program. Yes, beating an FCS opponent at home is to be expected, but this performance just continued to solidify the progress that the program is making under Bret Bielema.
We saw an offense with plenty of new elements, a defense that owned nearly every aspect of the game, and maybe most importantly, a team that finally looked physically and schematically the way it should when hosting a team like Chattanooga. It may not mean much to some, but it says a lot about where this football team is compared to year’s past.
The next step? Go do it against Wisconsin. Go do it against Iowa. Let’s have a really fun season here in Champaign.