How Illinois' upset of Penn State impacts the program's future
Have you caught your breath yet, Illini Nation?
Illinois went into Penn State and pulled off one of the craziest upsets of the season. It took 9 OTs, but the Illini knocked off the No. 7-ranked Nittany Lions, 20-18, to turn the B1G picture upside down.
More importantly, it was the performance Illinois — more specifically coach Bret Bielema — needed after the last 5 days.
In his press conference Oct. 18, Bielema talked about his roster and lack of development while discussing his approach on the recruiting trail.
“Certain positions haven’t probably played out the way they envisioned them to, in particular the offensive line,” Bielema said, in part. “I don’t believe we have a player in the 2-deep that they’ve recruited here over the last 3 years that is really significantly doing anything for us in the playing department, and that’s a major concern. That’s something that we have to do.”
The comments were criticized across the sports world, but Bielema pushed back, citing lack of context. There were questions about how the players would respond to it all.
Saturday’s win proved they responded just fine. But more importantly, the game showed what areas Bielema has to focus on — and what pieces he has in place — as he builds his roster.
The running game is legit
Illinois has quite the 2-headed monster at running back in Chase Brown and Josh McCray.
The duo combined for 365 yards to lead Illinois over Penn State, which held offenses to 111.3 rushing yards per game entering the matchup. Brown broke out against Charlotte as a potential RB1 of the future, and he turned in his 2nd 200-yard rushing game of the season, totaling 223. He’s 1 of 3 Illini to ever do that.
McCray, a true freshman, has also impressed this year. He had 142 yards against Penn State and is averaging 68 yards per game, 2nd only to Brown’s 106.2. His development will be instrumental these next 4 years, and he’s looking like a really good building block so far.
All in all, the running back room is in a good spot going forward.
Time to find a quarterback
The running game is established. Now, it’s time for Illinois to find its quarterback of the future.
Brandon Peters is graduating this year, and Art Sitkowski looked shaky against Penn State. Bielema has a 3-star quarterback committed from the Class of 2022 and 2 other 3-stars on the roster. If 1 of them can be the answer at quarterback, the offense could move like a well-oiled machine.
The weapons are there. Isaiah Williams, ironically a former quarterback, is turning into a solid wide receiver in his 1st season after the position switch. Add in Deuce Spann and you have 2 solid wide receivers who can make plays. Now, they need a quarterback who can help them make those plays.
That’s not to say it can’t be done with Sitkowski under center. He has 2 years of eligibility left and could turn things around next year. But if Bielema can land and develop a quarterback recruit like he says he wants to, it’d be huge for the Illini offense.
Build up the defense
If there’s 1 area that needs to improve the most, it’s the defense.
Illinois entered Saturday’s game against Penn State as the worst defense in the B1G, allowing 429.1 yards per game. The Illini held the Nittany Lions to 18 points, but this is the same Illinois team that allowed 42 points to Virginia and 37 to UTSA.
Consistency is key. Sure, Illinois is dealing with its share of injuries on that side of the ball, but that’s where depth comes in. We knew coming in that the Illini weren’t very deep on defense. That’s why they’ve been up and down this year.
Looking at this year’s recruits, Bielema has 2 defensive players committed. That number could, and likely should, increase as recruiting heats up. He also said he’s going to use the transfer portal, which has been a game-changer since its introduction a few years ago.
This column probably wouldn’t be written if Bielema didn’t say what he said this week. But since he did and Illinois played its best game of the season afterward, it felt like a good time to take a look at the big picture going forward.
It sure sounds like Bielema is.