2023 Preview: Illinois

Yes, I’m well aware that I didn’t do a Michigan recap. What did you want from me, to just post a gif of a dumpster fire?

That game pretty much went the way I said it would in the preview, except all my concerns were magnified by 10. Many people were celebrating Haarberg and his ability to run, but I pointed out that I was worried that is what our offense had to do to move the ball. Take that away and we have to have our OL push people around for the RB or make HH throw to WRs and we were in trouble. That was painfully evident. Further, I thought our defense was good, but not as great as they had looked against some very mediocre offenses our first 4 games. Add all that up and you get a 45-7 loss.

Let’s move on to Illinois
The Fighting Illini preseason were the popular pick to possibly be a dark horse West Division champion as Wisconsin was breaking in a new coach and Iowa has Brian Ferentz. But so far they have been less than stellar sitting at 2-3 with no wins against an FBS opponent. Their DC from a year ago went to Purdue and handed them a 44-19 whooping last week, things just don’t seem right in Champaign at the moment.

But Nebraska is coming off its toughest football game this season, injuries are mounting up, it’s a short week playing today (Friday), and we have to travel. That is a lot to overcome.

At the beginning of the season I had Nebraska at 3-3 heading into their first bye week after the Illinois game and predicted us to go 6-6 for the regular season and make a bowl. With us losing to Colorado and giving the game away against Minnesota, I think we have to steal this one that I had marked as a loss before the season started to get us to 3-3 and still make a bowl.

Illinois Stats:

Last year, DeVito completed 91% of his passes against Nebraska beating us like a drum 26-9. But DeVito ran out of eligibility and Bielema had to dip into the transfer portal where he found starter Luke Altmeyer from Ole Miss who is completing 65% of his passes but has 7 INTs to only 5 TDs. As we talked about with DC White and Michigan, part of our defenses problems are when we face a mobile QB. Altmeyer isn’t the most mobile guy, certainly less mobile than the guy last week, but Bielema knew Purdue had trouble with QBs that can run and they made them honest from the first play last week. Further, the Illini QB has been confused quite often dissecting coverages, maybe we can get an easy turnover?

Illinois lost all-world RB Chase Brown to the draft who lit Nebraska up last year behind their stud OL. Reggie Love III has taken his place but has been bitten by the injury-bug a little, we will see if he is ok to go Friday as he did not play against Purdue. If he can’t go, Josh McCray will be who the Illini rely heavily on to move the ball on the ground.

Wide Receiver:
This starts and stops with Altmyers favorite target Isaiah Williams as he has 30 receptions for 446 yards so far this season, though no touchdowns. He is a gamebreaker and we need to make sure we cover him everywhere. If the name sounds familiar, he was a former QB that Nebraska was recruiting but moved to WR. As is the theme with many write-ups I do, Williams will be locked onto guys like Gifford so we need to make sure we stop him. Their leader in receiving touchdowns is Pat Bryant who is 6’3 and 200 pounds that they like to go to at the goalline.

Offensive Line:
What was supposed to be a strength and something that Bielema was building, has looked mediocre so far this year. They returned three starters from a year ago, all of which had all-B1G honors to their name. However, it just hasn’t clicked for whatever reason so far. They have had to shuffle guys around and it has led to inconsistency, untimely penalties, and just disorganization. DC White said after the Michigan game that our lack of pass rushing was due to him not being aggressive enough, look for us to try and confuse this OL and get to the QB early and often with blitzes.

Defensive Line:
While the DL lost a couple studs last year, they return a 1st team AA and one of (if not the) best player on their team in Jer’Zhan Newton. They also return 3rd team all-B1G DE Keith Randolph from a season ago. Illinois will actually go into 5 linemen sometimes creating one on one blocks to try and get these two in a favorable matchup. Rhule has pointed to how we have to be good with all 5 of us up front, if we lose one battle the other team did their job. Something to keep an eye on is if Illinois can get to us without blitzing. I really worry about our OL against this guy.

This has been tough for me to figure out, they returned 3 guys but no one is really standing out to me here. Sorry for the lame description.

Illinois loses 3 NFL draft picks from their secondary and Witherspoon was an absolute beast back there. How Illinois replaces them is the biggest question. The Fighting Illini really aren’t stopping anyone running or passing the ball, and having to break in this many new players is what will be the issue. I expect more RPO and quick passes to not let the Illini DL get home and force the DBs to make tackles.

But which Illinois are we going to get? Bielema had Illinois in the top 25 last year and led them to an 8-5 record. This year, the stout defense and dominant OL seem like a distant memory.

Illinois has had a really tough time setting the edge defensively, which makes things really good for us to get Haarberg and our option game on track today. If we can somehow get that going, I really like our chances to have one of our better offensive performances.

Defensively, if we can figure out not letting their QB to run, we will have a good bounce back game. It’s really going to be up to if we can deal with losses to Singleton/Reimer etc. While I think our staff has done a great job of rotating people, there is still a drop off when that happens.

The total has gone down from 45 to 42, but I believe this will fly over. And i’m going to keep with my prediction of 3-3 heading into the bye week. Nebraska is a bit pissed and can get enough offense to make our defense feel good about things and step up.

Nebraska 28
Illinois 24

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7 thoughts on “2023 Preview: Illinois

  1. I love the side by side…comical. it’s tough sledding to get to 6. I had no idea it was going to be so challenging to return to mediocre big ten football. When you look at star ratings talent wise we shouldn’t be this bad. But it always seems to be mental why they lost so many one score games. But these are the games. The mid level big ten teams are the ones we have to win.
    Vegas says they are the better team. While I watched Illinois games I was not overly impressed. That makes me realize I am way over confident in nebraska. Haha.

    On to my questions…
    What’s the deal with LT? Is he really the best they have, is he a practice genius but isn’t able to connect film to game time? Is he just playing against unreal defensive wreckers?
    Offensive line ???
    So you’ve talked before about hip flexibility issues. Is that still a thing? But the biggest question on the 4th and 1 Michigan play. Everyone one of them got stood up. The level of attack seems too high is that an issue of height?

    1. I think they are screwed at LT between trying to keep Gottulas redshirt and Prochazka just always being injured personally.

      I think we bend a ton more now, we look better there in my opinion. But we are getting injured everywhere. I think we are just hammering these guys every day trying to get them back to playing football and Saturdays where it’s ramped up a notch can cause problems.

  2. Is there any realistic chance that the offense figures some things out during the bye week, turns respectable, and we turn in a surprising 4-2 type finish? In some ways, it seems so far away for that group, but so much of what ails them seems like extremely low-hanging fruit: stop just dropping the ball, don’t jump every time the defensive line stems, good holds on field goals, etc. Maybe the LT situation gets figured out a bit (does pulling Gottula’s RS or playing him the last four games solve any problems there?), a young WR (or two) has the light come on with 1st team reps, and the two FR pass rushers continue to develop, and all of the sudden you’ve got a little going.

    Another question (in case you’re bored in the off week :)) . . . Do you think it will be a tougher jump for the program to go from our current state (somewhere between atrocious and just bad) to mediocre, from mediocre to good (top 5-7 in the new B1G), or from good to really good (top 3-5 in B1G with a shot at the ostensibly 12-team playoffs every couple of years)? In other words, assuming Rhule and Co. can get the ball rolling, if/once it gets going, would you expect a pretty quick jump to national relevance, or do you see a total slog the whole way with a real chance of plateau at every level?

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