Illinois travels to Charlottesville to take on Virginia in first road matchup

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Freshman Keith Randolph Jr. lines up head-to-head against UTSA on Sept. 4. The football team will be playing away against Virginia.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois will travel to Virginia for its first road game of the season at 10 a.m. this Saturday. The Illini find themselves licking their wounds after a 37-30 upset home loss to UTSA, while Virginia is 1-0 on the season fresh off a 43-0 drubbing of William and Mary.

“There’s two things that can happen from a loss: the start of a losing mentality (and) a string of losses or the acceptance and awareness of the errors to make sure they don’t happen again,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “Our guys are hopefully going to be wired into (the latter) because they’re the only guys that make that decision.”

There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about this matchup for Illinois, with the quarterback situation being the biggest among them. After suffering a left shoulder injury early on in the week 0 matchup against Nebraska, veteran QB1 Brandon Peters sat out this past weekend’s loss. Artur Sitkowski has filled in admirably, and this week Bielema was noncommittal as to who the starting quarterback will be once Peters is cleared to play.

“(Sitkowski is) a steady guy,” Bielema said. “He’s locked into it. Once he makes a decision, that decision is made. I like (how) he gave us a couple first downs running the football. I don’t think on the scouting report they have him labeled as a running quarterback, but he’s able to convert and do some things there when the defense gives it to him. … I can’t stress enough how much I’ve been impressed with him and the guys that prepared him.”

Virginia had the worst pass defense in the ACC last season, allowing 304.4 yards per game. The Cavaliers were much better against the run, allowing 138.5 yards per game, meaning it may be critical for whoever Illinois starts at quarterback to have a big game.

While Virginia’s win last week was a blowout, it did signal what its offense may look like this week against Illinois. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong is a dual threat. He led the team in rushing yards last season and was a strong passer, too, averaging 235 passing yards per game while completing 58% of his passes.

Armstrong spreads the ball relatively evenly among four primary receivers last season, but two of his top four targets are no longer with the team. Billy Kemp was the top receiver last season and will look to remain in that spot, but players like Dontayvion Wicks and Keytaon Thompson were big targets in week 1 and may remain as factors.

Virginia boasts a diverse running attack, with seven different players registering carries last week. It ranked ninth in the ACC last season with 162.7 yards per game. Virginia’s biggest strength, however, may be its offensive line. They allowed just 20 sacks last season, which tied for least in the ACC.

“Have tremendous respect for (Virginia) Coach Mendenhall,” Bielema said. “I believe they’re 18-2 in their last 20 home games. They’re obviously doing a great job at home. We’re traveling there for the first time as a staff with a group of players. A tremendous task in front of us.”

While Illinois won its first home matchup under Bielema, his first road game poses a new challenge. Winning on the road is tough, but it gets even tougher when the opponent has won its past five home games. To get there, Illinois will need to not only break Virginia’s winning streak but also prevent extending its own losing skid.

 

@WesHollenberg

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