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Illinois’ season won’t be pretty, but it can still be successful

The Illini proved they can win ugly, and that may be the key to this season.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

Nothing has come easy for Illinois through four weeks.

After squeaking past Toledo on some fourth-down heroics and putting up two largely uncompetitive performances against Kansas and Penn State, the Illini turned what was seen as a get-right game into one that bordered on uncomfortable.

Illinois came away with a victory on Saturday against Florida Atlantic, but it didn’t come without its frustrations. A 10-0 deficit, turned 23-10 lead, turned “wait a minute, is FAU going to get the ball back with a chance to win?” It wasn’t the breeze we’d hoped for.

The offensive line continued to be a huge red flag against an opponent that should have been far inferior physically. The offense as a whole was inefficient in the red zone and couldn’t gain a pleasant amount of separation on the scoreboard. Turnovers — two costly fumbles — and penalties — three of them personal fouls — continued a trend of the Illini shooting themselves in the foot.

The first third of the season can be characterized as underwhelming at best. For a program looking to maintain momentum following an 8-win season in 2022, the first four games of 2023 have not passed the eye test on that front.

But there is plenty of season left. And the sooner we accept that this team isn’t always going to be a sight for sore eyes, the easier we can convince ourselves that Bret Bielema’s third season in Champaign can still be a successful one.

Looking at Illinois’ remaining schedule, not much looks daunting.

Indiana and Northwestern are Indiana and Northwestern. Ryan Walters’ defense looks lost in West Lafayette, Matt Rhule’s got some rebuilding to do in Lincoln, and the boat is at the bottom of the lake in Minneapolis after blowing a 31-10 lead to the Wildcats. Wisconsin, Maryland and Iowa will be difficult, but a long way from impossible.

For the Illini, it’s going to be about leaning into what appears is going to have to be its identity: ugly, but gritty and resilient.

Saturday’s game encapsulates that.

Falling behind 10-0, Illinois immediately felt the urgency and put together 23 unanswered points. It wasn’t a rampage by any means, but rather a slower, methodical climb back in control with sustained drives and important third down stops to get off the field defensively.

The Illini then made it difficult on themselves, allowing FAU to find its way into the red zone on three consecutive trips, one set up by yet another self-inflicted wound — a Hank Beatty fumble at the Illinois 13-yard line. The defense responded and stepped up when they needed it most, allowing zero points on all three trips combined and keeping the Owls at arm’s length.

When FAU tried to put the pressure back on by drawing within six, Illinois made sure they never saw the football again.

It was far from pretty, but plays were made when they needed to be made and the Illini walked off the field victorious, even if they didn’t bring the style points with them.

That is how this team is going to have success.

The offense is going to give people headaches at times. The defense is going to be far from last year’s group that led the country. But there’s going to be many tight, ugly football games where all it’s going to take are a couple plays one way or another.

So far — albeit against two non-Power 5 opponents in Toledo and FAU — Illinois has shown that they can be the team to make them.

Now let’s see if they do it against the big boys. Well, “big boys” may be giving the Big Ten West too much credit.

Let’s get to Week 4’s five stars.

1. Isaiah Williams

Isaiah Williams was the star of the show on Saturday.

Florida Atlantic had no answers for him, and he was almost single-handedly the spark that allowed the Illini to regain control of the game. He did it in a variety of ways as well, whether it be his 45-yard mossing or his typical elusiveness in space.

Eight catches and a career-high tying 120 yards was the total tally for I-Will. He’s been by far the most consistent producer on the offense through four games and it's apparent that Luke Altmyer has a ton of trust in him.

Only thing left is to get him in the endzone because it’s a crime that that hasn’t happened yet.

2. Luke Altmyer

What a bounce back for the Illini QB.

The spotlight was on Altmyer all week after throwing four interceptions a week ago. It was an important week for both him and those around him to respond and prove that he’s still the right guy to command the offense for the foreseeable future.

That response was an impressive one, as Altmyer went 25-for-36 passing for 303 yards and a touchdown. While he did fumble once on a play that can probably share blame between him and his protection, he also recorded his first Illini start without an interception.

That’s the exact type of performance you want to see from your young quarterback. Right back at it the next week eager, aggressive, and confident.

I think he’ll be just fine.

3. Zachary Tobe

When Taz Nicholson went down with an injury and was held out of the second half, the true freshman’s name was called.

And because football is football, Tobe found himself right in the thick of some crucial plays in the game. He tallied three pass breakups — two of which came on plays that helped keep FAU out of the endzone and stopped the Owls from making things uncomfortable.

Tobe played tight coverage and broke up both a 3rd-and-10 and 4th-and-14 pass attempt by FAU quarterback Daniel Richardson on back-to-back red zone drives in the fourth quarter.

His length really stood out and his ability to step up and play strong man coverage on key downs was a huge reason that Illinois never truly had to sweat on Saturday.

It appears that Illinois knows what it’s doing in the defensive back department.

4. Josh McCray

It was a rough first three weeks for Josh McCray.

On most of his early season carries, it looked as if he had lost a step following his knee injury in 2022 and after the Penn State game, questions started swirling about whether it was time that the majority of his carries go to one of the younger options.

In the second half on Saturday, McCray may have gotten his swagger back as he came up huge for the Illini in their efforts to salt the game away late. A 14-yard bounce outside on the game’s final drive showcased the explosiveness he’d been lacking.

McCray finished with 73 yards on 14 carries (5.2 YPC). Hopefully, that’s just the beginning of the turn back to his freshman form.

5. Keith Randolph

Johnny Newton has been at the top of the headlines the last two weeks — and rightfully so. But his Law Firm partner was the anchor of the defensive front on Saturday.

Randolph hadn’t necessarily started the season poorly, but his impact had been quiet in comparison to the disruptive force we had grown accustomed to seeing.

That wasn’t the case against FAU. Randolph was everywhere.

While Newton saw a heavy dose of double teams after his dominance against Penn State, Randolph got a chance to eat in one-on-ones, finding his way into the backfield on a plethora of occasions. He recorded his first sack of the season to go along with three pressures and 2.5 tackles for loss.

Keith is still a star.