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‘A tremendous challenge’: Illinois to take on Kansas in tough road environment

All eyes on the Jayhawks.

Jack Jungmann // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The 2023 campaign for Illinois football began in a rather dramatic but exciting way Saturday night, beating Toledo 30-28.

With a shortened week on tap, Illinois head coach Bret Bielema spoke to the media Monday at Memorial Stadium to discuss some key topics heading into Friday’s game in Lawrence.

Big players make big plays

Each week, the Illinois coaching staff recognizes players who stood above the rest in the prior game.

Against Toledo, a handful of deserving guys got deemed the “MVPs” on their side of the ball.

“Our offensive MVPs this past weekend: two receivers Pat Bryant and Casey Washington,” Bielema said. “Casey with that big play at the end and Pat with two touchdowns.”

A third player on offense was recognized as well, “We also gave it Luke [Altmyer],” Bielema said.

On the other side, the recent wide receiver turned safety — who made the biggest play of the night on defense with a pick-six — got the honor: Miles Scott.

“I just thought he handled the moment really well,” Bielema said. “Obviously that one play a huge factor in the game, but he made so many other plays.”

Caleb Griffin — who hit the game-winning field goal — was named an MVP of special teams.

Altmyer’s progression

Illinois’ new quarterback had only thrown 54 career passes before Saturday night’s game. That’s hard to believe with how comfortable he looked.

Luke Altmyer’s two-touchdown, 211-yard performance was a big part in the season-opening win, and his stout play (especially towards the end) already has him a fan favorite.

“I think anywhere Luke has gone, people are a fan of Luke Altmyer,” Bielema said.

Of course, it’s a very small sample size thus far, but lots of promise was shown. The final drive of the game being the big indicator.

“His touch on the ball is very special,” Bielema said. “After being through one game with him, he’s got some intangibles you didn’t know existed.”

With those intangibles in mind, Bielema had some questions of his own answered.

“To know that you have a quarterback that understands what’s expected of that position and can fulfill it, that’s a very big thing.”

It’ll be quite exciting seeing how QB1 progresses throughout the season.

Friday night lights

A new test awaits the Illini, and it’ll be the first time playing away from Champaign this season.

“Kansas has targeted this game for a long time,” Bielema said.

So much so that Kansas scheduled back-to-back Friday night games and is unveiling new uniforms to be worn in the contest.

“There’s a lot of thought that has gone into this game, and I think that’s awesome,” Bielema said. “I think that’s what college football is all about.”

The Jayhawks are led by third year coach Lance Leipold and star quarterback Jalon Daniels — who would be making his season debut after not playing in the 48-17 win over Missouri State due to injury.

Kansas started out 5-0 last year and was ranked as high as 19th. Bielema knows that Leipold will have his team ready to roll.

“Everywhere [Leipold] has gone they’ve always won,” Bielema said. “It’s just super important to realize he is a solid, fundamental coach.”

And Daniels is coming off a season last year where he passed for more than 2,000 yards and threw 18 touchdowns. On top of that, he also rushed for 425 yards and scored seven scores.

Bielema pointed this out in regards to the Jayhawk QB: “[Daniels was] voted on before the season as Big 12 Player of the Year offensively.”

Long story short, this matchup will give us a great indication on the identity of the Illinois team this year.

“A tremendous challenge on Friday,” Bielema said. “Super excited to get there and see where we’re at.”

Something to think about: If this game is played two years ago, no one would consider it a quality matchup as both programs were towards the bottom of their respective conferences.

Now with both on the rise and both coaching staff’s really coming into their own, this game is a top-of-the-list affair for week two.

Kickoff against the Jayhawks will be at 6:30 p.m. Friday, and you can watch the game on ESPN2.