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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing Illinois with the experts from The Champaign Room

We chatted with the guys from the SB Nation Illinois site The Champaign Room to get their perspective on the game.

Illinois v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Ahead of the Virginia Cavaliers contest with the Illinois Fighting Illini, we’ve had the privilege of having our questions about Bret Bielema’s squad answered by our colleagues over at The Champaign Room! Thanks to their team and Andrew Pastorek for enlightening us.

1. Illinois is 1-1 after two games with a tough loss to Indiana on Saturday. What are the general thoughts on the team in the second year of the Bielema era after what seemed like a disappointing and winnable game against Indiana?

Friday’s game against Indiana was almost a carbon copy of last year’s Maryland game — Illinois had something like a 90% chance of winning with four minutes remaining, yet a combination of penalties, poor play calling, and soft defense led to the Illini’s demise. Frustrating, for sure. And don’t get me started on the Brian Hightower TD catch that was ruled an incomplete pass...

Overall, though, Bret Bielema has instilled a sense of belief in his team. His mantra is “tough, smart, dependable” and there’s definitely a lot to like about the team. They are competitive and play with energy and physicality. And the Illini have been pretty entertaining to watch so far, which is a far cry from Illinois squads in recent seasons.

2. The running game has been the strength of the Illinois offense through two games,. What has made Chase Brown and the running game so effective?

First of all, a running back is only as good as the guys blocking for him. And the Fighting Illini have a massive offensive line. All five starters are either 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 and between 305 and 330 pounds. They’ve been able to push around opposing defensive lines and create huge running lanes.

As far as Brown himself, he’s a complete back — compact, strong, quick, agile, powerful, has terrific vision and great cutting ability. He doesn’t have game-breaking speed but he makes guys miss and is a very determined runner. Brown perfectly embodies Bret Bielema’s ideal lead back. Illinois needs to be careful about overworking him, but Brown impresses me more and more every week.

3. Defensively, it seems like the biggest strength for Illinois is among its front six. Is that an accurate assessment and how do you think the Fighting Illini might be able to exploit Virginia’s inexperienced and still-developing offensive line?

I’m... not sure. Illinois dominated Wyoming, holding the Cowboys to 30 passing yards, but only had 1 TFL the entire game. Illinois DC Ryan Walters ramped up the pressure versus Indiana, resulting in 6 TFLs and a sack, but the secondary got gashed at times. Sydney Brown (Chase’s twin brother), Jartavius “Quan” Martin & Devon Witherspoon are the standouts in the defensive backfield, but Illinois’ lack of depth there has been exposed.

Tarique Barnes is probably the team’s top linebacker, but senior Isaac Darkangelo is coming off a breakout game (6 tackles, FR) against the Hoosiers.

Up front, UVA will definitely have its hands full trying to stop “The Law Firm” — Johnny Newton (#4) and Keith Randolph (#88). Newton led the country last week with nine pressures and five QB hits. Randolph is an explosive athlete at 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds.

Walters’ 3-3-5 look is a bit deceptive as the Illini are still very aggressive and usually good at applying pressure. If they can win at the line of scrimmage and disrupt Brennan Armstrong’s timing, it’ll bode well for Illinois.

4. Where are Illinois’ biggest weaknesses? I know converting in the red-zone was a problem versus Indiana, what else do you think UVA might be able to take advantage of against the Fighting Illini?

As I alluded to before, the Fighting Illini have some depth issues in the secondary — Indiana was able to take advantage of some blown coverages and missed assignments, some of which led to the Hooisers marching down the field to win the game.

Also, the special teams unit has been very inconsistent. Illinois lost super-seniors at kicker, punter, and long snapper and has struggled in the kicking game so far. The Illini play a lot of close games, and mistakes in that phase of the game can be very costly.

5. What’re your thoughts on new QB Tommy Devito after two contests?

So far, there’s not much to complain about with DeVito. He’s put together two pretty solid games to begin the season (426 yds, 4 TD, 1 INT, 66.7% completion pct). He’s confident, calm, and makes good decisions. I’d like to see an uptick in the yards-per-attempt and yards-per-completion numbers, but I think much of that is simply a byproduct of Illinois’ offense.

There have been a few glaring examples of his timing being off, but I would attribute that to him still trying to familiarize himself with his receivers. To that end, I absolutely love that DeVito has been spreading the ball around — he completed balls to 11 different receivers against Wyoming and eight against Indiana.

6. Prediction and overall thoughts on Saturday’s game?

At this time, the Fighting Illini are -4.5, and I’m genuinely curious as to why. The cynic in me remembers last year’s game in Charlottesville, which was basically over before I could find ACC Network. The optimist tells me that the folks in the desert must know something I don’t. But until proven otherwise, I’m assuming a Virginia win. Illinois is still rebuilding and hasn’t historically performed well against P5 teams. The ‘Hoos appear to be vulnerable against the run, though, and the Illini have possibly the best back in the Big Ten. If Illinois has any chance they’ll need another 100-plus yard game from Chase Brown.

I’ve thought this was going to be an “L” throughout the offseason, and I don’t have enough confidence in Illinois to dissuade me. It’s hard being an Illini football fan AND having expectations.

Virginia 31, Illinois 23