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Virginia Football Opponent Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

The ‘Hoos travel to Champaign to take on a program in the second year of its rebuild.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For their second game of the 2022 campaign, the Virginia Cavaliers will travel to Champaign on September 10 to finish out a home-and-home series with the Illinois Fighting Illini. In their second year under head coach Bret Bielema, Illinois is seeking to build upon a season in which they came tantalizingly close to their first bowl game since 2019, finishing 5-7 with four one-score losses. With a question mark at quarterback, they’ll seek to further establish a slow-paced, run-heavy, and bruising identity.

2021 Recap

Record: 5-7

Postseason: none

In Bret Bielema’s first season in Illinois, the team over-performed expectations despite finishing with a 5-7 record. After a shaky 1-4 start capped by a 9-13 loss to Purdue (ouch), the Fighting Illini snagged a few surprising victories down the stretch, most notably a victory over #7 Penn State in Happy Valley that featured nine overtimes but only 38 combined points.

Bielema has aimed to rebuild Illinois in his own image: a hard-nosed, run-heavy team that relies on its solid offensive line and strong defense to squeak out victories. They averaged 174 rushing yards and just 156 passing yards per game last season, riding the legs of running back Chase Brown, who picked up 1,005 yards on the ground.

Quarterback Brandon Peters added 1,170 passing yards and threw 7 touchdowns to 4 interceptions for the Fighting Illini. Wide receiver Isaiah Williams paced the team with 47 receptions for 525 yards, both team highs.

2022 Preview

Key Returners: RB Chase Brown, WR Isaiah Williams, LB Calvin Hart Jr.

Key Departures: Offensive Coordinator Tony Petersen, QB Brandon Peters

Key New Faces: QB Tommy DeVito

The biggest question facing Illinois this season is at the quarterback position, where Brandon Peters’ departure leaves a gaping hole to fill. The Fighting Illini will have two options at the position: returner Art Sitkowski or Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito.

DeVito was the favorite for the job entering the season, but there seems to be a quarterback competition brewing in Champaign. Commenting on the situation via the Illini Inquirer, Bielema said, “Tommy, I kind of have to grab him and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m saying.’ He’s kind of like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ You got me, right? Art looks at me and locks it in. Everybody is their own person.” It isn’t too hard to read between the lines on that one and guess Bielema’s favorite.

No matter who suits up at quarterback, they probably won’t see the ball too frequently if everything goes according to plan. Illinois is poised to double down on its run-heavy game plan with the return of All-Big-Ten Third Team back Chase Brown. They’ll also get back linebacker Calvin Hart Jr., who had one of the most notable Week 1s of 2021: he recorded 1.5 TFLs, returned a fumble for a touchdown, won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, and suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Series History

All-time Record vs. Illinois: 1-2

Last meeting: 2021, Virginia win 42-14

The ‘Hoos handily defeated Illinois in Charlottesville last season behind 405 passing yards and 5 touchdown passes from Brennan Armstrong. Tight end Jelani Woods caught 5 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown, and the not-particularly-stout Virginia defense held Illinois to just 116 rushing yards and 14 points.