The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Up last is Illinois, a team that only won two games in 2020 and finished the season on a three game losing streak. Northwestern handled the Illini 28-10 last season, winning their sixth straight game between the teams. This year gives the ‘Cats the opportunity to tie the all-time series with a win.
Returning Production: 70 percent overall (Offense 80 percent, Defense 61 percent)
2020 Record: 2-6
Coach: Bret Bielema
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 81st
2020 S&P+ Offense: 77th
2020 S&P+ Defense: 83rd
Illinois had a decent 2019 season — finishing 6-7 after losing to California in the Redbox Bowl. Quarterback Brandon Peters, who transferred from Michigan after 2018, had a good season, throwing for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. Unfortunately, Peters was unable to replicate his 2019 performance in 2020; he only started five games, missing three after testing positive for COVID-19, and threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns.
In what turned out to be Lovie Smith’s final season as the team’s head coach, the Illini finished 2-6. They started the year by getting stomped by Wisconsin 45-7, with Peters throwing for just 87 yards and Illinois failing to score an offensive touchdown. Peters then tested positive for COVID, so the Illini turned to Coran Taylor at quarterback, whose 273 yards and two touchdowns were not enough to beat Purdue. They remained winless after a 41-14 loss against Minnesota, with Illinois’ defense allowing Mohamed Ibrahim to run for 224 yards and four touchdowns.
The Illini needed to switch it up; Isaiah Williams, listed as a wide receiver on the 2021 roster, started at quarterback against Rutgers last season. Williams threw for 104 yards and ran for 192 yards as Illinois got their first win of the season. Peters was back the following week as the starting quarterback against Nebraska, and Illinois won their second straight with a 41-23 victory over the Cornhuskers. Peters threw for 205 yards and a touchdown and the Illini’s two-headed backfield of Mike Epstein and Chase Brown combined for 223 yards and three touchdowns.
However, their winning days would not last long. After their game against Ohio State was canceled due to COVID-19, the Illini lost their three final games by a combined 57 points. Peters started hot against Iowa, but was soon pulled and replaced by Williams at quarterback. Against NU, Peters started 3/14 for 21 yards and was replaced by Williams again, who struggled mightily until a fourth quarter touchdown. Illinois’ final game of the season against Penn State started as a shootout, tied at 21 after the first quarter. The Nittany Lions ended up winning 56-21 and Illinois’ season ended with questions all over the roster.
Illinois’ 2020 passing offense ranked 114th in the FBS, but, regardless, it looks like they are going to run it back with Peters under center in 2021. Peters flourished in his first year with the Illini and new head coach Bret Bielema is counting on him returning to that form.
If Peters fails to get it going, the Illini could turn to other options, such as Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski. Sitkowski struggled mightily at Rutgers, but is a former four-star recruit with offers from Ohio State, Florida and Miami, so it’s quite possible that he possesses the talent necessary to succeed in the Big Ten. If Sitkowski doesn’t work out, Illinois could turn to former Northern Michigan quarterback Ryan Johnson, who earned a spot as a preferred walk-on. In addition to Sitkowski and Johnson, Samari Collier is a true freshman who threw for over 4,000 yards and 56 touchdowns in high school. However, given the talent and experience above him on the depth chart, expect Collier to redshirt this year.
Outside of the quarterbacks, Donny Navarro, Brian Hightower and Casey Washington are the only returning Illinois receivers with more than five receptions. Jafar Armstrong, a grad transfer from Notre Dame who played RB and WR for the Irish, also could serve as a pass-catching option for the Illini. He rushed for 513 yards and nine touchdowns and caught the ball 30 times for 294 yards. Thus far, his career has been hobbled with injuries and position competition, but he can be an important part of the Illini’s offense if he is able to stay healthy.
As mentioned earlier, Isaiah Williams switched from QB to WR in the spring. The five-star athlete had offers from just about every blue chip program in the nation, but the opportunity to play quarterback drew Williams to Illinois. His extreme athleticism made him a dynamic, shifty runner and with quarterback experience against Big Ten defenses, Williams could be an elite receiver for Peters.
In the trenches, Bielema inherits one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation, with the returning players combine for 123 Illini starts. Tackles Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski will lock down the edge as they return for their senior seasons. Meanwhile, center Doug Kramer was named to the Pro Football Focus preseason All-Big Ten second team and was listed as an Honorable Mention in PFF’s preseason All-America list.
Bielema and new offensive coordinator Tony Peterson will likely trot out a run-heavy offense in 2021, as Illinois had the 35th-ranked rushing offense in the nation a year ago. Much like last season, the Illini will be a revolving door in the backfield unless someone breaks out. Brown led the team in carries last season and ran for 540 yards and three touchdowns. Williams, at quarterback, rushed for 389 yards, while Epstein ran for 367 yards and four touchdowns.
New defensive coordinator Ryan Walters was previously the defensive coordinator at Missouri, where he made the Tigers’ defense one of the SEC’s top units. In 2019, Mizzou’s defense ranked in the top 20 for total defense and scoring defense and excelled as a top 10 pass defense. However, Walters will have his work cut out for him, as Illinois’ defense finished ranked 116th against the run, 67th in passing yards allowed and 97th in scoring defense in 2020.
Diving into the position groups, the entire starting defensive line is back. Fifth-year defensive tackle Jamal Woods started just three games last year and has had a career riddled by injuries. Nose tackle Roderick Perry II is a former FCS All-American and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2020. The Illini also have defensive end Keith Randolph Jr., who recorded just eight total tackles last season.
Losing linebacker Milo Eifler — who you may know from this gem — to the NFL Draft is a tough pill to swallow, but the Illini have some talented seniors ready to lead the defense. Inside linebacker Jake Hansen has started every game he’s suited up for since 2018 and was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team last season. Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney Jr. are two senior outside linebackers that will provide a pass rush while having some coverage responsibilities in Bielema’s new defensive scheme. The only new face among the starting linebackers is Calvin Hart Jr., an inside linebacker that transferred from NC State.
Other than losing cornerback Nate Hobbs to the NFL Draft, the Illini return most of their secondary, including three of four starters. Senior Tony Adams is moving from safety back to his original position of cornerback. Across from Adams will be Devon Witherspoon, who had a breakout season last year with 33 tackles, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. However, Illinois has two major question marks at safety in Sydney Brown and Jartavius Martin, who have not had productive seasons since 2019.
Three Players to Know
WR Isaiah Williams
Williams isn’t exactly a sleeper pick for this spot, but since there’s little to no tape of him at wide receiver, opposing defenses will have difficulty game-planning for the talented, versatile athlete. Williams measures at 5’10” and 180 pounds, the exact same height and weight as Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett. The way Williams runs with the ball is similar to Lockett and he shares the ability to shake off tacklers despite his size. Whether or not Williams will be a talented pass catcher is yet to be seen, but such an elite athlete like himself will be a threat regardless.
NT Roderick Perry II
Perry’s unique story of going from being inexplicably under-recruited to becoming an FCS All-American to jumping into to the Power Five level at Illinois is somewhat unbelievable. Perry’s only played a season in Urbana-Champaign, but was one of the Illini’s few bright spots in 2020. He recorded 17 tackles — five solo and 12 assists — and two sacks in only six games. At 6’2” and 315 pounds, Perry is almost exactly the average size of a professional defensive lineman. Perry could’ve entered the 2021 NFL Draft, but opted to use the extra year of eligibility granted to all players by the NCAA and return to Illinois.
OLB Owen Carney Jr.
Carney is making the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker, but his experience should help with the transition. He gained more playing time in the 2018 and 2019 seasons and finally received the starting nod in 2020. His three-sack performance versus Purdue drew the Big Ten’s attention, and, when the season came to a close, he was named to the All-Big Ten second team. He recorded 27 total tackles, five sacks and one forced fumble, all of which represented career highs. He enters his senior year with high expectations.