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Virginia Football Opponent Preview: Illinois

The Hoos host the Illini for a morning fall matchup in Week 2.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 19 Orange and Blue Spring Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game two for the Virginia Cavaliers this year is a morning home game against Illinois of the Big Ten. As part of our prep for the season, let’s take a brief look at this team coming into Charlottesville led by new head coach Bret Bielema.

2020 Recap

Record: 2-6
Postseason: none

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Big Ten did not start football until late October and had a shortened season that consisted solely of conference games. Illinois did not fare well, finishing with a record of 2-6, and that does not include a cancelled game against #4 Ohio State due to a CoVID outbreak within the Buckeye program. That almost certainly would have been another loss for the Illini. The two wins were both on the road, against Rutgers (3-6) and Nebraska (3-5).

The Illini were led by QB Brandon Peters, but the Michigan transfer missed three games due to COVID protocols He started the other five games and led the team with 429 yards passing and a 49% completion rate. Illinois is mainly a running attack, with four different rushers over 100 yards last season. Each of the four averaged well over five yards per carry.

That group was led by RB Chase Brown, but the second leading rusher was backup QB Isaiah Williams, who replaced Peters during his absence. Williams has since moved to WR full-time. (A third QB, Coran Taylor, saw action as well but has since moved to DB.) Brown led the team with 540 yards rushing, but that was just a third of the team’s total as the ground game was a team effort.

The Illini passing attack ranked 118th nationally, and had just four receivers with double digit catches. That group was led by Josh Imatorbhebhe with 22 receptions for 297 yards and three touchdowns.

2021 Outlook

Key Returners: QB Brandon Peters, RB Chase Brown, TE Daniel Barker, LB Jake Hansen, DE/LB Owen Carney, Jr, DB Tony Adams
Key Departures: None
Key New Faces: QB Art Sitkowski (Rutgers transfer)

Illinois was picked last in the Big Ten West, receiving the fewest votes of all Big Ten teams. This team is beginning a rebuild. There are some pieces here — including a strong and veteran OL — but they are going to struggle in the passing game without a go-to receiver and a QB who is more comfortable running than throwing.

On the defensive side, this unit returns almost the entire squad from last year, which ranked 114th nationally and gave up almost 470 yards per game. Jake Hansen is a strong centerpiece for a defense, but there isn’t much else behind him. And with a new coordinator, they are all going to learning a new system with new schemes.

Series History

All-time Record vs Illinois: 0-2
Last Meeting: 1999, Illinois win 63-21

These teams have faced off twice, but never in the regular season. They first met in the 1989 Citrus Bowl and then again in the 1999 MicronPC Bowl. Neither game went well for the Hoos, especially the ‘99 game, a 63-21 blowout (at which yours truly was present). At least we had fun in Miami.

This game should be different than those two. Illinois is in the beginning of a program rebuild, while Virginia is several years into their rebuild. One thing that the Illini have going for them is that this will be their third game whereas it will be Virginia’s second, and first against an FBS or Power Five program.

The game is scheduled for 11am (yes, 11am) on September 11. ACC Network will broadcast the contest.