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2022 opponent preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Will Bret Bielema be able to notch a win against his alma mater?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

We continue catching up with the previously scheduled programming with a preview of Bert’s Fighting Illini.

5 Ws

Who: Illinois Fighting Illini (Champaign, IL; Big Ten Conference)
Head Coach: Bret Bielema (5-7 at Illinois; 102-65 overall record)

What: Iowa’s second road conference game

When: October 8th, 2022

Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL

Why: The two teams are still in the West Division and thus, required to play annual contests against each other.

4 Stats

3-3: This is Bret Bielema’s record against Iowa as a head coach. Frankly that doesn’t seem nearly as bad as I thought! I sure do put a lot of weight into that 2010 Iowa-Wisconsin game I was at, which was the last time he coached against the Hawkeyes prior to last season which he actually didn’t coach since he was out with COVID.

704 yards: Artur Sitkowski’s passing numbers. He’s the only returning QB on the roster and figures to back up Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito after suffering a season injury in the greatest football game of all time. The lesson here is that it is possible to have a worst QB situation than Iowa’s!

29:19: Illinois’ time of possession in 2021, which ranked 83rd. It’s well below where Bielema would like it, given his preferred style of play. In every season he was head coach of Wisconsin, the Badgers were in the top 25 (often top 5!) of time of possession.

1005 yards: Chase Brown is one of four Big Ten returning running backs who exceeded 1000 yards in 2021. Perhaps what is most impressive is he did it in just 10 games, including two 200+ yard performances. He averaged 5.9 yards/carry.

3 Guys

Isaiah Williams (#1, WR, So, 5’10”, 180 lbs): The former quarterback transitioned to wideout last season and led the Illini with over twice as many receptions as the #2 guy. He finished the season with over 500 receiving yards and six total touchdowns.

He’s an superb athlete and was a run-first quarterback while he lined up behind center, tallying 389 rushing yards in 2020. He had some success last season against Iowa, notching a touchdown, and getting 53 yards on four touches.

Chase Brown (#2, RB, Jr, 5’11”, 205 lbs): This guy is an absolute bowling ball. He bounced back from missing two games early in the season to accumulate the 1000 yards mentioned above.

He’s a menace between the tackles as a largely one-cut and go back. The guy is tough to bring down - though Iowa did successfully in their matchup last season - and breaks through many arm tackles. He’s also got a second burst to get into the secondary and turn solid runs into great ones.

Devon Witherspoon (#31, DB, Jr, 6’0”, 180 lbs): Last season, Illinois struggled to turn teams over. They had 17 takeaways last season but see five of their nine interceptions leave with Kerby Joseph’s departure. Witherspoon offers a high potential guy to backfill those, as he led the team with nine passes defended, with none of them being interceptions.

His freshman year highlights show a physical defensive back and sure tackler. He never quits on a play either. If he’s able to translate some of that success defending the pass into turning teams over, he can have an impact against the Hawkeyes.

2 Cases

Best case: Iowa scores early and forces a quick turnover from DeVito, extending the lead with the short field. Illinois is forced to play left handed through the air and Iowa continues to pressure their pass game, eventually resulting in a defensive touchdown. The Hawkeyes turtle for much of the second half but add another touchdown as the run game wears down Illinois’ defense.

Worst case: Illinois jumps out to a 10-point lead but Iowa can’t close the gap on a ensuing kickoff. The offense remains stuck in mud for three quarters while the defense largely stifles the Illinois offense, though they add a couple field goals. They score an early fourth quarter TD but don’t convert the two-point conversion. Bert runs a successful 4:00 offense and Iowa drives west with an L.

1 Question

Can Bret Bielema recapture his glory from Madison? There is no more interesting coach in the West than Bret. Since his coaching history in the conference precedes Kirk’s time as head coach at Iowa, pretty much every divisional matchup has juice. Iowa as his alma mater and first job when he hung up the cleats. Wisconsin as the school he left to chase the SEC bag. Northwestern as their instate rival. And residual disdain for Minnesota from his time in Madison.

Simply put, he gets the landscape and knows what it takes to elevate a program into a divisional contender.

His first two recruiting classes were in the bottom three of the conference, which is where his 2023 class sits as well. But Wisconsin *under Bielema was (and still is) rarely known for lapping their competition on signing day; it was all about development, especially in the trenches. Can he show enough there to play his preferred style of play? Often times, he ran out six or seven offensive linemen to gain an edge there and five wins was probably a little ahead of schedule in 2022.

If he continues to that trajectory, it means they need to continue winning those unexpected games like last year’s road wins against Penn State & Minnesota. A game against Iowa is ripe for the picking if Iowa is hanging over from the result against Michigan with a bye week & Ohio State to follow. They’ll need to bring the juice because Bielema absolutely will.