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Illinois is still primed for success

Illini fans showed up in force to the Bay Area, and their team played tough against a motivated Mississippi State squad

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s iteration of the ReliaQuest Bowl brought Illini fans a feeling that few have been able to experience since the Rose Bowl season of 2007.

The Illini showed up at Raymond James Stadium ready to play competitive football against a peer-level SEC opponent, and traded blows the entire way, while putting up more than a few offensive and defensive highlights in the process.

In so many ways, Monday’s game was emblematic of a bowl game being the reward for a successful season. A season, which, in this case, shattered almost all pre-season expectations for Illinois football in 2022.

The Seniors Gave Their All

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

From Kendall Smith’s interception and Quan Martin’s elite coverage to the constant effort by defensive linemen Calvin Avery and Jamal Woods, Illinois’ seniors clearly left it all on the field against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

After the game, Martin mentioned that he’ll be “maximizing [his] ability in the next couple of months” in preparation for the NFL Draft. He was also effusive about the improvement that Coach Bielema brought to the Fighting Illini program, saying that although the outcome in the bowl game isn’t what the Illini wanted, the team is definitely in a better place now than when the season started.

On the offensive side, Tommy DeVito made the most of his last game with the Illini. DeVito tossed a few dimes downfield in ways that we didn’t often see during the season, and put more of his pass game on tape for NFL teams. He ended the day with a rushing touchdown, no interceptions, and 253 passing yards.

Returning Players Shined

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As great as it was to see the seniors get their moments, the returning players made it abundantly clear that Illinois’ future remains bright. Reggie Love had a few highlight runs and Josh McCray characteristically juked or stiff-armed several Bulldog defenders on his rushing attempts.

Illinois’ receiving corps also had a solid day, with Isaiah Williams making 9 receptions for 114 yards, excluding a wide-open seam route touchdown that was called back due to a false start. Impressively, Williams gained 86 YAC on his receptions, which is a testament to his elusiveness as a pass-catcher.

Casey Washington also made his presence felt with 8 catches for 74 yards, and even Tip Reiman caught 2 passes for 18 yards, including one on a nice outside screen play.

Barring unforeseen injury issues, Luke Altmyer should have his choice of targets in the 2023 season.

Defensively, Xavier Scott and Tarique Barnes made a significant impact in the bowl game by each recording 6 tackles. Johnny Newton would be welcomed back to the Illini with open arms if he so chooses, and his bowl performance of 3 tackles and 2 PBUs only endeared him further to the fanbase. Keith Randolph is in the same situation, and he managed 2 tackles, a PBU, and 2 quarterback hurries in the game.

Matthew Bailey continued his emergence as a high-level safety for the Illini secondary, and he appears to be in the driver’s seat for the starting safety job in 2023. After the game, he said that in the offseason he was looking forward to getting “a little bit faster,” but overall just “more intelligent, learning the game of football more.”

Linebacker Kenenna Odeluga indicated that he anticipated working on “explosiveness” in the offseason, but ultimately that the team as a whole would “take the bull by the horns, and capitalize on everything that was accomplished this year.”

And on special teams, Hugh Robertson made some great punts, averaging 47.7 yards on 6 tries, which included a few that backed the bulldogs up to the endzone.

The Atmosphere was Phenomenal

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois came back to Raymond James Stadium in a night-and-day different situation compared to its previous adventure to Tampa in 2017, when they lost to the USF Bulls 47-23. In this game, Illinois returned in a very different light, and Illini fans showed up in earnest.

Illini fans easily outnumbered Mississippi State fans by a wide margin, and the roar in the stadium on Tommy DeVito’s rushing touchdown was a particularly special moment.

But even outside of the game itself, Illini fans were all over Tampa this weekend. And that’s a great sell for the selection committees of major bowl games to consider in the future.

All in all, the arrow is undoubtedly pointed up for the Illini, and the fan support has been a significant factor in that rise. Continued support will mean great things for the program, and I have no doubt that the future still is bright.