Illinois football: Reassessing the Illini after a 1-3 start
Illinois sure was close to going 2-2, huh?
It took a last-second Maryland field goal for the Terps to defeat the Illini 20-17 in Champaign on Friday night. Illinois was that close to its second conference upset of the season, this time over a Terps team led by Taulia Tagovailoa, who threw for 353 yards.
But Maryland entered the game as a 7-point favorite, yet won by only 3 points. Does that mean Illinois played that well? Or did Maryland play that badly? It’s hard to say.
One thing’s for sure. We’re now 25 percent of the way through the schedule — and we can see if the Illini are who we thought they were.
Should we revise those preseason expectations?
Nope. Illinois is performing about at expectations — outside of the Week 1 win over Nebraska, of course.
The losses to UTSA and Virginia weren’t good, but there’s nothing major to worry about given the state of the program. This rebuild is just getting started. Illinois is going to lose some games it probably shouldn’t (UTSA) and win some games it probably shouldn’t (Nebraska).
The Illini were picked to finish 7th in the B1G West preseason poll. Beating Nebraska should help get them out of the cellar, but it’s hard to say if Illinois will finish any higher in the standings.
Through 4 games, the Illini haven’t pulled off any major surprises to change our expectations.
Who has emerged?
Isaiah Williams made the transition from quarterback to wide receiver this season. But you wouldn’t know it by watching him.
He has become an important weapon as the Illini’s leading receiver with 57.5 yards per game — including 101 against UTSA. It was worth wondering how the redshirt freshman would handle the move.
His coach sure wasn’t worried about him, especially since he was so good on the other side of the passing game.
“The more football he learns at the wide receiver position is only going to benefit us,” Illini coach Bret Bielema said. “Like I told him (in the spring) after the first practices he had at wide receiver, I know we’re going to get the question, ‘Hey, you wasted all this time at quarterback,’ and that’s the complete opposite. All the years he played quarterback, he learned how to read coverage, understand leverages.”
So far, so good.
Who has disappointed?
Despite a strong showing against Maryland with 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, the Illinois defense has been an area of concern.
Yes, it has had its share of injuries — notably CJ Hart and Keith Randolph Jr. — but that tests depth. The Virginia game showed the holes in the defense, especially when the Cavaliers scored 42 points and quarterback Brennan Armstrong marched UVA downfield.
Again: The Maryland game was a good one for Illinois’ defense. But it’s still one area the Illini really need to improve as B1G play picks up.
Are they who we thought they were?
Illinois is absolutely who we thought it was.
Honestly, did you really think the Illini would be lights-out in Bielema’s first season in Champaign? He’s a stark contrast from Lovie Smith — both on and off the field. It’s going to take him time to get the pieces he wants for his system into place. His recruiting chops could also speed up the timeline, but that’s looking toward the future — which is what rebuilding’s about. It’s not all about the present.
This year is supposed to be rough. So it’s no surprise that the Illini are playing like they are.
They’ll enter November with a 2-7 record
The schedule isn’t very friendly to Illinois once B1G play starts.
After a game against Purdue next week, the Illini get a breather and welcome Charlotte to Memorial Stadium. From there, it gets tough: Wisconsin and Penn State back-to-back before Rutgers comes to town. That last game could be one to watch for a potential upset, though.
Still, you can see why Rutgers would be the pick in that one. Illinois is poised to have just 2 wins heading into November.
Remember, Illini Nation. This is only Year 1.