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‘Going to be more than just fine’: Illinois prepares for Newton-less half

Johnny will be sorely missed for a half.

Wisconsin v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Despite head coach Bret Bielema’s best efforts, the Illini will be without their top player for the first half of Saturday’s matchup against Minnesota.

Johnny Newton’s targeting penalty that was called after a hit on quarterback Braedyn Locke in the fourth quarter of the loss to Wisconsin was upheld after Bielema went through a formal appeals process.

“Once it appeals, the Big Ten supported it,” Bielema said. “Then, they sent it on to the NCAA and the NCAA supported it and that was the final appeals process.”

As a result, Newton will be forced to miss the first half of Saturday’s game against Minnesota in accordance with NCAA targeting rules. It will mark his first time not starting a game for the Illini since his freshman season in 2020.

Newton put together arguably the most impressive performance of his college career against the Badgers prior to the penalty. He recorded eight pressures, one sack and one forced fumble in just over three quarters of action. He also was Pro Football Focus’s highest graded player in the country for Week 8.

“[Johnny’s] probably the most anticipated return to college football in the second half player that I’ve ever had in my career,” Bielema said.

For the first half on Saturday, however, Illinois will need to find a way to make up for the loss of its soon-to-be All-American. Replacing one of the country’s most dominant interior defensive lineman is no easy task.

Doing so will require a multitude of different guys to step in and perform at a high level.

“Any time you’re missing a player of Johnny’s caliber, that good, I think the challenge is making sure different guys step up in his role,” said defensive coordinator Aaron Henry. “It’s hard to replicate Johnny’s ability, Johnny’s status, Johnny’s ability to make plays.”

One player who could help fill the void is the other member of the Law Firm, Keith Randolph, who Bielema said expects will rejoin the team against the Gophers after missing the previous two games due to injury.

“I think for Keith to get out there, as close as he and Johnny are, would be a great statement,” Bielema said.

Another option that emerged against Wisconsin was Gabe Jacas, who lined up on the interior of the defensive line instead of his usual outside linebacker spot. In the eyes of the coaching staff, that’s a switch that could pay dividends both in helping to replace their mainstays and also for Jacas’s future.

“I thought he played pretty well at the point of attack, I thought he was physical,” Henry said. “I think the sky’s the limit for Gabe at any position, whether he’s inside or outside.”

Redshirt sophomore Sed McConnell and senior Bryce Barnes will also likely see snaps in Newton’s place come Saturday. The Illini are confident they can survive a half before getting their unstoppable forced back when they emerge from the locker room.

“I think we’re going to be more than just fine,” Henry said. “I think we’ve got enough guys around [Johnny] in that position to fill that void until he returns at halftime.”

Illinois will look to pick up a significant win towards its bowl eligibility hopes against Minnesota on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.