With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland just under two weeks away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
Last but certainly not least is Illinois, a team that will, despite our best efforts, try to steal a HAT.
Returning Production: 51% (51% Offense, 51% Defense)
2021 Record: 5-7 (4-5 B1G)
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.
2021 S&P+ Overall: 64th
2021 S&P+ Offense: 97th
2021 S&P+ Defense: 29th
After firing Lovie Smith at the end of the 2020 season, Illinois pulled Bret Bielema back from the NFL to coach in the Big Ten, hoping he could repeat the success he had with Wisconsin. He did… pretty okay, actually.
Illinois opened the season strong with a 30-22 win over Nebraska but lost the next four straight to UTSA, Virginia, Maryland and Purdue. They rebounded against non-conference Charlotte for a 2-4 record at the halfway mark, with formidable opposition in the half of the schedule yet to come.
The Illini were shut out by Wisconsin 24-0, but pulled off a wonderful 20-18 upset versus No. 7 Penn State in an NCAA-record nine overtimes (after the first two overtimes, teams use a two-point conversion shootout to determine the winner). Naturally, they turned around and dropped the next game to Rutgers, and then beat No. 20 Minnesota.
In their last two games, the Illini lost by 10 to No. 17 Iowa before handing Northwestern a beatdown to secure the HAT. The demolition broke NU’s six-game HAT streak, ruining Northwestern’s chance at equaling the overall series this upcoming year (the rivalry currently stands at 56-54-5 in favor of Illinois). The Iowa loss essentially eliminated Illinois’ bowl hopes, and the Illini finished with a record of 5-7, just outside of contention.
Illinois returns the lowest amount of production in the Big Ten on both sides of the ball, which could either be a blessing or a curse. It’s more likely to be a blessing for the Illini, as they’ve upgraded their offensive weaponry beyond just quarterback-turned-wide receiver Isaiah Williams and running back Chase Brown.
Bielema completely revamped the coaching staff when he was hired as head coach, only retaining running backs coach Cory Patterson. However, the below-average offensive output from the 2021 Illini was not enough to justify keeping offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. After Illinois lost to UTSA, Bielema must have liked what he saw, and now Illinois’ opponents will have to face the offensive schemes of Barry Lunney Jr. Under Lunney’s offense, UTSA went 12-2 last year and won the Conference USA, putting up an average of 442.9 total yards and 37.8 points per game. Yes, the defenses of the Big Ten will be tougher, but those are good numbers, and they should carry over at least somewhat.
Illinois will still run the ball a lot, especially with the backfield they currently have. Chase Brown got more touches last year than any year prior, leading to a 1,000-yard season, while Illinois’s second back, Josh McCray, tacked on 549 more. If the powerful duo in the backfield isn’t enough, the air attack has gotten stronger. QB Tommy DeVito transferred from Syracuse and is expected to win the starting job, Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington return at wide receiver, and Luke Ford returns at tight end after a career-best 2021 campaign.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters stays on for 2022, as does a decent amount of Illinois’ starting production. The 2021 defense gave up only 21.9 points per game, good for 25th in the nation. Illinois should have pretty solid pressure, even without linebackers Jake Hansen and Owen Carney. Defensive linemen Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer’Zhan Newton combined for 7.5 sacks last year, and all of the projected starting linebackers next year have at least one sack on the books.
Defensive back Sydney Brown returns after a team-best 81 tackles last year, as does second-place linebacker Tarique Barnes’s 80. Illinois only lost two of their top seven tacklers, and they return players that contributed to over half of their tackles for loss, so it’s likely that the run defense will continue to be strong, even without Hansen and Carney’s experience.
The same cannot be said about their secondary, however. Starting safeties Kerby Joseph and Tony Adams are gone, leaving huge shoes to fill in the backfield. Joseph had a team-leading five interceptions last year (huh, that sentence sounds familiar for some reason), and the two combined for 120 tackles last year. Illinois returns the rest of their secondary, who do have potential, but it’s going to be on them to step up.
Three Players to Know
Chase Brown, RB
Chase Brown was the power for most of what little Illinois offense existed last year. With the exception of the season opener against Nebraska, Brown put up over 100 yards in rushing in all Illinois wins, including a 223-yard performance in the Penn State upset. If Brown was kept under control (under 60 yards rushing), however, the Illini lost. He rushed for 1,005 yards on the season, and he’ll certainly be looking to repeat the feat this year. Illinois has plenty of talent in the backfield that could steal yardage (McCray), but Brown is by far and away the leader of the group.
Isaiah Williams, WR
In 2018, Isaiah Williams was recruited as a quarterback and had offers to play at basically every program in the nation. He chose Illinois and proved himself to be pretty bad passing-wise, but was excellent running the ball. So, Bret Bielema made the natural decision and switched him to wide receiver last year. It was a success, and Williams led the Illini in both receptions (47) and yards (525). With better quarterback play and a new offensive coordinator, he should have even higher potential.
Tommy DeVito, QB
DeVito has been competing with Art Sitkowski for the starting QB job after transferring from Syracuse, where he had a moderately successful career under Dino Barbers. After showing flashes of brilliance in 2019, where he threw for 19 touchdowns and five interceptions, DeVito was injured for the latter half of 2020, and then lost the starting job to transfer Garrett Shrader early in 2021. He has a big arm and experience in the clutch, and assuming he starts, he should bring more stability and power to Illinois’ passing game.