A year ago, the Virginia Cavaliers faced the Illinois Fighting Illini in Charlottesville and took them behind the woodshed, winning 42-14. It was 14-0 less than five minutes in and, although Illinois got within a score in the early third quarter, Virginia dominated the final two periods as the win felt easy.
The Illini would love to get some revenge in the return matchup out in Champaign. That 2021 team was better than they showed against the ‘Hoos. That was the only game they were blown out and they had some big wins including a 20-18 win over #7 Penn State in 9 OT(!). They also won at Minnesota (#20). This year’s team is 1-1, with a home win over Wyoming and then a tough loss at Indiana last Friday.
Several things are stacked against Tony Elliott’s team in this game. Being on the road, facing a team with an extra day of rest, and a group that has played twice already this young season. The Illini also have a bye week coming up, so they have no reason to hold anything back. All of this shows in the lines, as the ‘Hoos opened as 3.5 point underdogs and currently sit at +5.
Virginia on Defense
ACC fans may recognize the Illini’s starting QB. Although he played four years at Syracuse, he never faced Virginia. The two teams haven’t faced off since 2015. Nice job, ACC! Devito was only a full time starter one season for the Orange back 2019. He was 56th in the nation in QB rating. But he was never able to recreate that — in part due to injuries — and lost the starting job last season. So, he transferred to Illinois in order to avoid getting comfortable in a new color scheme...
In Illinois’ opener against Wyoming, DeVito put up 194 yards and two touchdowns, averaging a poor 5.2 yards per pass. He was better against Indiana, totaling 235 at 6.7 yards per pass. He again had two touchdowns, but that came with one interception.
Obviously, the QB gets the hype and the focus. But RB Chase Brown makes this offense go. Brown leads the nation in rushing yards with 350 (remember, he’s played twice already). The 5’11” 205 lb back had a big TD in last year’s game, which was the only time Illinois seemed poised to make things competitive.
Notice the pulling linemen, with Brown patiently running behind his blocks. We saw Virginia struggle to contain Richmond’s RBs last week, a continuation of last season’s defense. Brown and the Illini OL are better than Richmond, which is concerning. That OL returns just two players from last year’s matchup, one of which, Julian Pearl, missed the Indiana game last week. Even without Pearl, this unit is big (averages almost 320) and has experience, although some of that is junior college experience. Pearl is expected back for this game.
Outside of that run, Brown didn’t do much last year against UVA. Due to Virginia’s big lead, Illinois had a 45/27 pass/run split. This limited Brown’s touches and ultimately hurt the Illini’s chances. Brown rushed for over 1000 yards last season at 5.9 yards per carry. Considering the Illini averaged just 4.7 yards per play against Virginia, it certainly seems like more runs may have helped.
Brown has been practically unstoppable this year, rushing for 6.4 yards per carry. He also had 36 carries against Indiana, as Illinois controlled the clock for better than 36 minutes. Last week against the Hoosiers, Brown ran through some huge holes on his way to 199 rushing yards.
But, he was stuffed on the biggest play of the game, a fourth and goal in the fourth quarter. This is not on Brown, as he’s hit almost before he gets the handoff.
The Illini’s top player in the passing game is Isaiah Williams, with 16 grabs already this year after a team-leading 47 catches last season. On his interception last week, Devito tried to force the ball to Williams. It was a strange play with two receivers running the same pattern. There are just too many players in this area and it ends up as a game-changing interception for Indiana.
Williams is also a big part of the ground game.
Here is how that play is written in the game log. Devito tosses the ball forward a foot, so it’s technically a pass. But deep middle? Anyway, the Illini ran three or four of these jet sweeps including an earlier touchdown from Williams.
Illinois wants to get the ball into Williams’ hands as much as possible. He’s the best offensive weapon they have (along with Brown), and also returns kicks.
Between these “deep middle” passes, and the running game, it’s clear what Illinois’s strength is. Passing the ball was not quite as successful. Although Devito was solid, he was sacked three times and threw the bad interception.
All three Indiana sacks came in passing situations (third and medium or second and long) and came with 5 pass rushers. Virginia was able to get some pressure on Richmond QB, with two sacks and two other QB hurries. They also forced several hurried throws. Look for John Rudzisnki to continue working on ways to generate pressure. Look for some run blitzes as well, as Virginia tries to stop Chase Brown before he gets a head of steam. If they can slow down Brown, they’ll be successful. But if Brown gets going, it could be a long day for Virginia’s defense.
Virginia on Offense
The Wahoo offense was solid last week, considering the focus on establishing the run, and the vanilla schemes run by Tony Elliott and Des Kitchings. The goal against Richmond was not to run up the score, or to put up a bunch of highlights. The goal was to do enough to win without really showing anything to future opponents. And they still put up over 500 yards, with Armstrong throwing for 246 and running for 105. The big surprise was RB Perris Jones rushing for 104 yards. Amazingly, Jones is the first UVA RB to top 100 yards rushing since Jordan Ellis in the 2018 Belk Bowl.
The big play of the day on the ground was Brennan Armstrong’s big run. Coach Elliott mentioned that this was a “busted play”, which was meant to be an inside handoff to Jones. But Armstrong made a read and turned it into a big play. That’s one benefit of a 5th year QB. Armstrong has the freedom to make reads, change plays and react to what he sees. A younger QB may not have that freedom. Armstrong’s speed is also on display here, as he outruns Richmond defenders.
Illinois dominated the run game against the Hoosiers, holding Indiana to just 32 yards on the ground. It’s hard to tell whether this play was intended to be a run or perhaps an RPO. But the Illini’s focus on slowing down the running game is highlighted as the LBs were selling out to stop the run.
Of course, there’s a down side to selling out to stop the run.
Indiana hit several deep passes last week, with this being the biggest. Virginia has certainly shown, including in last year’s game, the ability to hit the deep ball.
This was a breakout game for both WR Dontayvion Wicks and TE Jelani Woods. Of course, Virginia doesn’t have a dynamic TE like Woods right now, but look for Keytaon Thompson to run similar routes from the slot.
Illinois isn’t completely inept against the pass. They tend to struggle defending the deep ball, but the DBs are solid on plays in front of them.
This is a great read by the Illini DB, and a huge hit which causes the incompletion.
On the other hand, Illinois has just one sack on the season, and it was a coverage sack against Indiana. Armstrong’s ability to get out of the pocket and make things happen with his legs will be key. Of course, Armstrong needs to be careful about taking unnecessary hits. Stepping out of bounds or sliding are totally reasonable actions for Armstrong, and key things for him to learn. Virginia is a completely different team without Armstrong on the field.
Knowing the strength of this Virginia squad is the passing game led by Armstrong, Illinois may not sell out against the run quite a much. That may lead to open holes for Jones and Mike Hollins to make some plays. Anything Virginia can get in the ground game will help Armstrong and his WRs.
The key will be not making mistakes. With two teams that are better offensively than defensively, this game could turn into a track meet. Virginia had two turnovers last week (and forced zero). On the road, against a Power-5 team, losing the turnover battle very likely leads to losing the game.
Virginia dominated last year’s game, but both teams have changed quite a bit since then. The biggest change, of course, is Tony Elliott at the helm for Virginia. Illinois was in a similar boat last year, in Bret Bielema’s first season, and his team was not ready for its first road game.
Last year, Virginia got off to a quick start in front of the home fans, while Illinois sleepwalked through the beginning of the game. Virginia needs to avoid a similar experience, and that means getting more hyped for this game than the team seemingly was last week. Elliott doesn’t seem like a big “rah-rah” guy, so it’ll be on the players to get themselves hyped. Here’s hoping.
Prediction: Illinois 34, Virginia 28