What to expect from Bret Bielema’s second Illini squad
Indiana Football opens its 2022 campaign on a Friday night in Bloomington, when the Illini come to town on September 7th.
This will be year two of the Bret Bielema experiment at Illinois, but he definitely did turn some heads last season with an up and down year that featured wins over Penn State (in the most Big Ten football game of all time) and Minnesota next to losses to Rutgers and UTSA.
Illinois had been in such a low place prior to Bielema’s arrival that the five win 2021 campaign was a marked improvement over the Lovie Smith era, which was just getting started when Indiana last played Illinois in 2017.
The Fighting Illini actually open their season with an August 27 matchup with Wyoming, a very respectable non-conference opponent in a game that should give us a pretty good idea of how competitive Bielema’s group will be this year.
Here’s what we know now:
Like Indiana, Illinois will have a new offensive coordinator this year, as Bielema reunites with Barry Lunney Jr, who served as his tight ends coach at Arkansas before a stint as an offensive coordinator for UTSA. If you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em!
Lunney also served as associate head coach and quarterbacks coach in his time at UTSA, where his offenses averaged 442.9 yards and 37.8 points per game. Illinois fans will likely be happy if he can even come close to replicating these stats in Champaign, after the Illini averaged just 19.8 points per game last year, ahead of only Rutgers, Northwestern, and Indiana in the Big Ten.
The Illini will bring back Chase Brown, who rushed for over 1000 yards last season and was named to Athlon Sport’s Second Team All Big Ten Offense, and offensive lineman Alex Palczewski, who plays both the tackle and guard positions and was named to Athlon’s Third Team All Big Ten Offense.
At quarterback, Illinois brought in transfer Tommy DeVito, who had an impressive season in 2019 as a sophomore starter for Syracuse, completing 63.2% of his passes for 2,360 yards and 19 touchdowns versus just 5 interceptions. His 2020 season was cut short due to injury, and he then lost the starting job at Syracuse in 2021 to Garret Shrader.
Some Illini writers believe that Artur Sitkowski is also in competition for the starting spot, after seeing limited action last year at Illinois, completing 50% of his passes for 704 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in five games.
Illinois’ defense was about middle of the pack in the Big Ten last year in yards (151.1) and points per game (21.9) allowed. They’ll be returning significant pieces from last year’s group, including safety Sydney Brown, who was second on the team in tackles last year, and linebacker Calvin Hart Jr.
Hart Jr. is a bit of a tough one to project since he played in just one game last year before going down with a season-ending injury, but he shined in Illinois’ 2021 opening win over Nebraska with 6 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and a sack. Athlon Sports has him tabbed as Fourth Team All Big Ten, despite how little he played last year.
Up front, Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer’Zhan Newton, who were both in the top ten in tackles for Illinois last season. They finished with four and 3.5 sacks last season, respectively, which should be a test for an Indiana offensive line that struggled to block much of anything last season.
What to expect
Frankly, I am a lot less confident about this game than I was before writing this article, especially since this won’t be the first game for Illinois this year, and their strength on the defensive line is a bit of a nightmare matchup for an offensive line that gave up 29 sacks for -169 yards last season.
If Taiwan Mullen is fully healthy when the season rolls around and returns to his peak form, he and the rest of the Indiana secondary could give Indiana’s defense a bit of an edge, since the Illini do not boast a particularly impressive receiving core. Still, they are bringing back a guy who rushed for over a thousand yards last year and Indiana will no longer have the services of Micah McFadden to single-handedly bottle up great rushers.
Weird things happen in Memorial Stadium, all the time, so the first Friday night game in stadium history promises to be a spectacularly bizarre event, which could favor Illinois, since it had a bit more of the chaos factor going for them last year compared to an Indiana team that was kind of just bad.
Buckle up, folks! This season is happening, whether we like it or not. You want to allow room for growth over the season, but we could learn a lot from this week one match up with an Illinois team that appears to be on an upward trajectory out of the Lovie era.