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THE BIG PREVIEW: Illinois comes to Charlottesville to face Virginia

The Hoos square off against a Big Ten foe in Week 2.

William & Mary v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Virginia Cavaliers Football continues out-of-conference play against the Big Ten’s Illinois Fighting Illini. Illinois is in their first year under new head coach Bret Bielema, who formerly coached at another Big Ten school, Wisconsin. Bielema left Wisconsin to coach at Arkansas and spent the last three years in the NFL.

Illinois played in the 2021 college football season’s opening game on August 28, beating Nebraska 30-22. They then lost their second game 37-30 to UTSA. Both games were at home.

Virginia, of course, has only played one game, a 43-0 win over William and Mary.

These two teams have faced off twice, both in bowl games. It isn’t pretty for Virginia fans, as both games were wins by the Illini. The first loss came at the 1990 Citrus Bowl, 31-21. The second came at the 1999 MicronPC bowl, a whopping 63-21 loss. That is the second-most points ever scored in a bowl game.

Hopefully, Virginia can exact some revenge in this game. They are 10-point favorites at home. The Hoos return the favor with a road game in Champaign next year.

When: Saturday Sep 11, 11AM Eastern
Where: Scott Stadium
TV: ACC Network

Virginia on Defense

A year ago, three QBs rotated for the Illini, with Michigan transfer Brandon Peters leading the way. He wasn’t particularly good, with a QB efficiency of just 106.2, which would’ve ranked 106th nationally if he’d played more.

Peters started this year’s opener against Nebraska, but suffered a shoulder injury in the first half and did not return. Rutgers transfer Art Sitkowski replaced him and completed 12-for-15 for 124 yards and two touchdowns. His QB efficiency was 193.4, which is quite good. Sitkowski started against UTSA and took every snap. He wasn’t quite as good in his second outing, completing 22-for-42 for 266 yards and three touchdowns (129.15 QB efficiency), but still solid. At press time, Peters is still not cleared for game action, so Virginia fans should expect to see Sitkowski. While neither of these QBs are dual-threat guys, Peters has a bit more mobility. Sitkowski will move around a bit, but isn’t really a threat to run.

One of Sitkowski’s more impressive throws against Nebraska. The deep out is not an easy throw, especially on the move. He puts it right on target.

The Illini have questions at RB as well, with at least four capable backs. Mike Epstein started and led the way in carries and yards against Nebraska. Freshman Jabari Norwood started against UTSA and was probably the most successful back of the bunch, but Reggie Love led the team in carries and yards. Meanwhile, Chase Brown returns after leading the team in carries and yards last season.

This is Epstein with a big run against Nebraska. Really what’s key here is the OL, which gets a big push and allows Epstein to get moving downfield and run to daylight.

That OL is very experienced, with 131 combined starts heading into this season. It’s also a big unit, averaging 6’4, 310 pounds. They pushed around Nebraska pretty well. They were successful enough against UTSA to score 30 points, but since they fell behind early, they didn’t get to run the ball as much. They till had 150 yards rushing, however. It seems that Bielema is going to ride the hot hand at RB, which never really materialized against UTSA. Five backs had at least four carries each.

Last year’s leading receiver, Josh Imatorbhebhe, didn’t return, which left a hole in the receiving corps that has not really been replaced. Among WRs, the leading returning player had just 11 catches last season (in eight games). TE Daniel Barker had 19 grabs, and pairs with Georgia transfer Luke Ford to make a dangerous pair of TEs. They have combined for nine receptions and three TDs through the first two games. They will definitely be a key for the Wahoo defense this week.

Their leading receiver so far is redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams, who rushed for 389 yards and passed for 393 last season at QB before moving to WR in the spring. He did play WR briefly in a bowl game in 2019, finishing with three catches for nine yards.

Williams is dynamic and Illinois will look to get the ball into his hands in many different ways. That Sitkowski deep out shown above is also Williams. His 14 grabs this season are more than the next three guys. He will be a big test for Virginia’s rebuilt secondary.

If you haven’t seen, Nick Grant is listed as the starting FS, with Joey Blount moving to SABRE (Grant was previously a starting CB and Blount was the starting FS). Grant has good size for the safety position and looks better when he can face the QB. Meanwhile, Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson has better pure cover skills, which will allow the defense to be more aggressive. Blount is the leader of the defense and the best run stopper among the DBs, which makes him a good fit at SABRE rather than at Free Safety. De’Vante Cross moves to the Nickel spot, only the fifth different position he has played in his UVA career.

Part of the change is working to get the best 11 guys on the field. But part of it may be matchup based, as Johnson is a better matchup against the quickness of Williams. Meanwhile, Grant and Cross are good matchups against the Illini’s TEs.

Virginia’s defense looked good last week, but they were facing a freshman QB on an FCS team that barely played last season. This will be a much bigger test and a much better representation of how Virginia’s defense will fare this season.

Virginia on Offense

Last year’s Illini defense ranked 114th nationally, allowing nearly 470 yards per game. The year before was better, averaging about 410 yards per game (77th ranked). That was actually their best finish since Lovie Smith’s first season. No surprise that he was let go.

Almost the entire defense from last year is back for this year. Nineteen players return after starting at least twice last season. Of course, if the defense struggled last year, is it a good thing or a bad thing that everybody returns? It’s a small sample size, but so far this defense ranks 101st in the nation. Not much of an improvement, and they still have most of their Big Ten schedule remaining.

Under Lovie Smith, the Illini ran a 4-3 defense. Bielema appears to be running a 2-4-5. Against UTSA, they actually opened with a 2-5-4, which is really a flexible 4-3 with two down linemen and two upright linemen. They spent a lot of the game running the 2-4-5 though.

It may be hard to see in the shot above, but two OLBs are lined up on the edges with two down linemen on the inside. The OLBs are basically just stand-up DEs. This is a very flexible defense with a variety of looks and lineups.

Here is the play following the above formations. Both OLBs come as pass rushers, but with the QB rolling out, the pass rush isn’t a factor. It appears to be man coverage underneath, with one high safety and the other safety acting as a spy for the QB. It’s hard to know for sure what the defense is supposed to be doing, especially as there’s a couple of DBs who don’t seem to be doing anything.

Here is a similar play last week from Brennan Armstrong, with the addition of play action to the RB. We know Armstrong can make that throw on the move, and it should be available against the Illini defense.

The Roadrunners also had success with designed QB runs. We have seen Brennan Armstrong run this exact play and just last week, we saw at least three different “QBs” run something similar (Armstrong, Keytaon Thompson and Ira Armstead). Despite what we saw last week, chances are only Armstrong and Thompson are likely to be taking consistent snaps. The RBs need to get going and there’s only so many carries to go around. Jacob Rodriguez shouldn’t be getting carries ahead of Mike Hollins and Wayne Taulapapa in competitive games.

Don’t get me wrong, Jacob Rodriguez is immensely talented and may be the QB here in a couple of years. But, realistically, the RBs are better ball carriers right now (see above). There’s value in keeping defenses guessing, but there’s also value in giving the ball to your best players.

The Illini’s leading pass rusher is Owen Carney, listed on the roster as a DE and in the game book as an OLB. The 2-4-5 is, in essence, a 4-2-5, with DEs in a two-point stance. Carney is 6’3, 275 pounds. He may be listed at OLB, but in NFL parlance he’s an EDGE. So far this season, the Illini have six sacks, with four of those coming from the DTs.

This is really a coverage sack due to a long-developing play from the Roadrunners. There is a blitz up the middle, but it is picked up. The pocket eventually collapses from up front. Of the six sacks the Illini have, four have come from the DTs.

This was the key play in the win over Nebraska, a scoop and score from the Illini. Once again, this is really a coverage sack, as Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez initially has time to throw. The pocket collapses from up front and Martinez is unable to escape.

Here, we see Armstrong get a little antsy in the pocket with nobody to throw to. Armstrong will have to be decisive because the Illini’s DTs are bigger and better than what William and Mary had, and will be ready to swallow Armstrong up if he gets stuck.

Conclusion

Bret Bielema is a good coach and the season opening win over Nebraska was a step in the right direction. But the home loss to UTSA is a step back, and likely a better picture of where this Illini team is right now.

Next year’s game may be a tough one. Illinois will improve with a full season under Bielema and it’ll be a road game for the Hoos. But this Cavalier team is a few years ahead of the Illini in their rebuild and should be able to take care of business at home.

Prediction: Hoos 34 - Illini 17 (season record: 1-0)