Bielema it or not, Illinois is the team to beat in the Big Ten West
On a statement Saturday in the Big Ten West, Illinois screamed loudest.
Bret Bielema’s Fighting Illini have established themselves as the team to beat in the B1G’s second division.
A program with 2 bowl appearances in the past decade. A school that hasn’t seen a 9-win season since 2007 or a 10-win campaign since 2001. And until Saturday afternoon, a team that hadn’t won a game at Camp Randall Stadium since 2002.
The bad old days are over in Champaign-Urbana, with a 34-10 wipeout of Wisconsin serving as emphatic proof. It was the most lopsided win for the Illini over the Badgers since 1988 — a season in which Paul Chryst was the fifth-string quarterback for a 1-10 Wisconsin team.
Illinois is the most complete team in the Big Ten West, and the road to the Big Ten championship game goes through Memorial Stadium.
That doesn’t guarantee Illinois will be playing Ohio State or Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium this December. Losing the conference opener at Indiana killed any chances of the Illini becoming a September darling like fellow woebegone Kansas. It could also prove very costly in the quest to finish atop the division standings.
But as Saturday’s results showed, no team in the West is more well-rounded than the Illini.
A dominant defense
Sophomore Braelon Allen is probably the Big Ten’s third-best running back. Only Illinois’ Chase Brown and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim are better. Since taking over as Wisconsin’s starting running back in Week 5 last season — against Illinois, no less — Allen had only been held below 50 yards once and 100 yards thrice.
Against Illinois, Allen ran for 2 yards on 8 carries. Counterpart Chaz Mellusi was Wisconsin’s more explosive back with 16 yards on 7 carries. The Badgers finished with 24 rushing attempts for 2 yards.
Wisconsin. Year-in, year-out one of the most consistently dominating rushing attacks in the country. 2 yards.
It’s the program’s worst performance on the ground since Northwestern limited the Badgers to minus-26 rushing yards in 2015. It is one of only 4 times Wisconsin has rushed for less than 10 yards since 2000.
For the Illinois defense, these performances are becoming par for the course. The Illini are allowing 70.2 rushing yards per game. Teams are averaging 8.4 points per game against them.
First-year Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters figures to be one of the hottest coaching commodities of the upcoming offseason — quite possibly for the head coaching position at his alma mater, Colorado.
So it would behoove Illinois to take advantage of his services while he’s still around.
But unlike many of their Western foes, the Illini aren’t completely one-dimensional. The offense can move the ball, and do it both on the ground and through the air.
Tommy DeVito: The QB B1G West coaches wish they had
Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell is the best quarterback in the Big Ten West by 10 miles. And as he showed in his return from injury at Minnesota, it’s too early to count the Boilermakers out of this division race.
But Illini quarterback Tommy DeVito is likely the next-best quarterback the West has to offer. He actually does what most Big Ten West coaches ask of their quarterbacks — move the chains and avoid mistakes.
DeVito is completing 69.9% of his passes for 224 yards per game and 10.5 yards per attempt. The latter figure is now second in the Big Ten behind only Ohio State’s CJ Stroud.
DeVito has thrown 2 interceptions against his 9 touchdowns, which is by far the best ratio in the West. Even O’Connell has 3 picks to 8 touchdowns.
The quarterback who previously looked like No. 2 in the division, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, was exposed against Purdue on Saturday. With running back Mohamed Ibrahim out due to injury, Jeff Brohm dared Morgan to beat the Boilers. He could not. Morgan completed 55% of his passes with 3 interceptions.
Brown is the Big Ten’s best running back, as he demonstrated with another 129 yards against Wisconsin. But DeVito is good enough that opposing defenses have to treat the Illinois passing threat seriously. And that could differentiate the Illini from the Golden Gophers.
A 3-team race is percolating
At the moment, 3 teams look capable of representing the West in Indianapolis: Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.
The Gophers are clearly a much different team without Ibrahim in the lineup. And if this is the only game he misses, perhaps it will be Minnesota’s lone hiccup. But the fact the Gophers could only average 1.8 yards per carry without him in the lineup is alarming, especially given what Illinois is doing on the defensive front.
Purdue is showing signs that it is a more complete team than most think. The Boilers rushed for 160 yards against a stout Minnesota defense, with former walk-on Devin Mockobee picking up 112 yards on 11 carries in place of the injured King Doerue. The Boilers could easily be a 5-0 team right now without late-game mistakes against Penn State and Syracuse.
But it’s worth noting that last year’s Illini held Purdue to 13 points. And that Bielema is 9-0 lifetime against Minnesota.
The race for the Big Ten West is on. And Illinois is emerging from dark horse to favorite.