In case you need a reminder, last year’s trip to Virginia didn’t go so well.
The dismal performance of the Illini in Charlottesville was likely due to a perfect storm of factors: it was Illinois’ third game under Bret Bielema, and also the first road game of the season, while Virginia was a well-oiled machine under sixth-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Now the script is flipped somewhat in 2022. Illinois has settled into Bret Bielema’s style in his second year, and the Cavaliers now need to travel to Champaign in their second game under new head coach Tony Elliott. This will also be Virginia’s first game against an FBS opponent in the 2022 season, after they somewhat narrowly defeated the FCS Richmond Spiders last week.
Can Illinois capitalize on the situation and get back above .500? Absolutely, but they won’t come close unless they can...
Contain Brennan Armstrong
Last season, Armstrong was virtually able to hit any pass he wanted against the Illini defense, throwing for an astounding 405 yards and five touchdowns. He also added 31 rushing yards on the ground. It goes without saying, but if Armstrong is allowed to have another day like that on Saturday, then the game is already virtually over.
It will take a determined effort by the entire defense to slow down Brennan Armstrong, and Illinois showed some positive signs in that regard last week. Johnny Newton’s 1.5 TFLs and 3 quarterback hurries last week are exactly the kind of pressure that we’ll need against Virginia, but we’ll need even more out of the defensive front if the Illini are going to keep Armstrong from getting comfortable in the pocket.
Keith Randolph Jr., Tarique Barnes, and Jamal Woods all recorded TFLs last week, and they’ll need to build on those performances this week.
The defensive line and linebackers will be key to keeping Armstrong from getting into a groove, but Illinois will need just as much out of their secondary too. By denying quick and easy downfield passes, the Illini secondary can force Armstrong to remain vulnerable in the pocket for extended periods of time. Couple frustratingly tight coverage in the secondary with Virginia’s almost inevitable offensive confusion, and we might just have the makings of a close game here.
Of course, more hits like these would help too.
Although the bulk of the pressure will probably be on the defense this week, Tommy DeVito and Co. will still need to at least...
Execute the Offensive Gameplan
The Illini offense shouldn’t need exceptional performances out of Tommy DeVito and Chase Brown, but they will need enough production to keep Virginia’s offense off of the field. Think about the Nebraska and Penn State games from last season, and that’s the minimum of what the Illini offense needs to generate here.
That expectation shouldn’t be too difficult with outstanding athletes like Isaiah Williams and Chase Brown at Illinois’ disposal.
As long as the Illini can execute their offensive gameplan, and limit turnovers at all costs, then they should be able to keep a much shakier Cavaliers team at bay this weekend.
Looking back on the Virginia game box score from the 2021 season again, I’m reminded about how that was one of only two games last year in which the Illini were unambiguously dominated. Except against Wisconsin, every other game was either a win or a relatively close loss, even when Illinois played against ranked teams on the road. Meanwhile, Virginia finished the 2021 season at just 6-6 and lost their head coach.
With that in mind, I feel that the debacle in Charlottesville last season had much more to do with Illinois’ historical ineptitude in the first road game of the year than it had to do with Virginia. Still, this is mostly the same opponent again in 2022, and Armstrong and the Cavaliers have already shown what they’re capable of if the Illini play poorly. Let’s flip the script this time and get back in the win column instead.