This season, I’m going to be handing out five “stars” from each Illini football game. Think the three stars handed out after hockey games, but I’m expanding it to five because especially on a night like Saturday, there were too many key contributors to narrow down.
In Saturday night’s thrilling season-opening win over Toledo, there were a multitude of guys that deserve their flowers. On a night where Illinois didn’t have its best stuff and played one of its sloppiest games of the Bret Bielema era, a handful of players stepped up and gave the Illini what they needed to prevail and start 2023 1-0.
Here are Week 1’s five stars:
1. Luke Altmyer
Can’t start this list without the brand-new Illini signal caller.
Coming into the 2023 season, Luke Altmyer was perhaps the biggest mystery on this Illinois roster. Tommy DeVito provided the type of steady presence at the quarterback position that Illinois hadn’t had in over a decade and Altmyer was handed a tall task to try and maintain that momentum from last season.
His debut went about as well as anyone could’ve possibly imagined, minus one mistake.
Altmyer was 18-of-26 passing for two touchdowns and one interception, showing a maturity and poise in the pocket that wasn’t expected of a guy making his first collegiate start against an FBS team.
He also was the Illini’s leading rusher, adding 69 yards on the ground on nine attempts and displaying the mobility that many on the Illinois coaching staff had raved about all offseason.
The more I watch this throw, the more I’m blown away by it. Fourth-and-4, have to convert to stay alive, and Altmyer delivers a 33-yard dime as he’s getting absolutely laid out.
Clutchest throw by an Illinois QB since Brandon Peters’ 4th-and-17 conversion to Josh Imatorbhebhe against Michigan State in 2019?
2. Miles Scott
At this time last year, the thought of Miles Scott making a game-changing defensive play would’ve been taken as no more than a fantasy.
Scott joined the program as a walk-on wide receiver in 2021, playing sparingly and recording just four receptions during his first two seasons.
This past spring, Scott was put on scholarship and transitioned to defensive back, ultimately winning the starting free safety job out of fall camp and stepping into the role last filled by Kerby Joseph and Kendall Smith, both of whom found themselves in NFL training camps this summer.
And on Saturday night, Scott made a game-changing, and perhaps season-altering, play.
Here’s an outstanding view of Scott reading Toledo QB DeQuan Finn’s eyes from the very snap, ranging over to make an athletic play on the ball, and taking it to the house for a massively needed six.
Scott also forced an incompletion on Toledo’s two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter that would’ve put the Rockets up by three and made Caleb Griffin’s kick merely game-tying.
Overall, Scott was the defense’s biggest star from game one and could prove to be next in line when it comes to free safety playmakers in Champaign.
3. Pat Bryant
I wondered which of the wide receivers, if any, would build the quickest connection with Luke Altmyer in this Illinois offense.
While Altmyer spread the wealth fairly evenly across his top three options on Saturday night, his rapport with Pat Bryant stood out the most.
Bryant caught touchdowns on back-to-back drives in the second half, helping Illinois to erase a 12-point deficit and put themselves in position to come away victorious.
Six catches, 64 yards and two touchdowns was the final tally for Bryant. His routes were crisp all night and he looked the part of a guy who can take a junior year leap.
Loved this play call from Barry Lunney on the first touchdown:
Just a simple, crisp slant to create a wide-open score. There were a few of these on crucial downs:
May want to get used to that Altmyer-to-Bryant connection.
4. Casey Washington
Casey Washington has never been the focal point of the Illinois wide receiver room over the course of his career, but, boy, has he had his hand in some big moments.
Saturday’s 33-yard fourth down reception is one that will stand as one of the highlights of the 2023 season, no matter how the rest of it shakes out.
When Luke Altmyer released the throw while getting pummeled to the turf, all he knew was that he was trusting Washington to come down with the ball. Washington did exactly that.
Don't worry...Casey caught it— Brad Repplinger (@TCRBrad) September 3, 2023
(From the Toledo sideline) pic.twitter.com/sVTsC5HljR
Washington finished the night with four catches for 54 yards and his trustworthy hands that have allowed him to be a key contributor for such a long time were the difference between win and loss.
5. Xavier Scott
This last star is a little bit more under the radar than the first four.
Xavier Scott didn’t make the flash play that his fellow Scott counterpart did, but from my seat in the press box Saturday night, he stood out in his own right.
According to Pro Football Focus, the sophomore defensive back allowed just one catch on six targets for 12 yards. He finished with four tackles and two pass breakups, both coming in the first half to help hold Toledo out of the endzone.
He also showcased his versatility, starting the game at nickel corner, then shifting outside to the boundary after Tyler Strain left the game with a concussion.
Tasked with filling the Quan Martin role from 2022, Scott was extremely impactful in the season-opening win and could prove to be one of the future stars of this new look Illinois secondary.