Illinois football bye week takeaways: Running backs remain elite, quarterback situation remains messy

Quarterback+Artur+Sitkowski+handles+the+ball+during+the+game+against+Wisconsin+Oct.+9.++The+Illini+football+runnings+backs+remain+elite+while+quarterbacks+have+a+tough+time.

Cameron Krasucki

Quarterback Artur Sitkowski handles the ball during the game against Wisconsin Oct. 9. The Illini football runnings backs remain elite while quarterbacks have a tough time.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

It’s been a slog, but we’re finally here. The Bret Bielema era hasn’t exactly gotten off to a blistering start, with the Illini sitting at a 2-5 record at roughly the season’s midpoint. Now, Illinois has finally reached their first bye week to rest up and try to figure out how exactly they got here. I’ll be doing the same and looking at some of the good, mixed and ugly things we’ve seen through Bielema’s first seven games as head coach.

The Good

The Illini backs are legit.

Possibly the biggest positive of the season so far is the launch of the tandem of Josh McCray and Chase Brown as an explosive duo of running backs. McCray saw his highest usage against Purdue in week five and took advantage of the opportunity en route to a 156-yard performance on 24 carries. Brown’s best game was even better, putting up 257 yards on 26 rushes against Charlotte, the fourth most rushing yards in program history. 

Both backs have shown the ability to take over in games, which is especially important given Illinois’ shaky passing offense. The next step will be for them to both get going on the same game. If they can, the running game can become a lethal weapon for Illinois. McCray also brings the benefit of being a true freshman, so if he keeps up his success, he can become a dominant factor for Illinois as the Bielema era kicks into gear in future years. 

The special teams are still elite.

We knew this going into the year, but James McCourt and Blake Hayes have remained excellent at kicking and punting, respectively. McCourt broke the Illinois record and made 50+ yard field goals, while Hayes has Illinois leading the Big Ten in yards per kickoff. There have been multiple points this season where Bielema has opted to punt and left the other team pinned near their own endzone. All being told, this is the only unit the Illini have that is reliably strong.

The Mixed

Illinois has a defense, sort of?

So far, the Illini defense has played a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde game, looking porous for the first few weeks, and then dominating up until the Wisconsin game. In the first few weeks, Illinois let up an average of 481 yards per game, but in the three matchups afterward, they let up just 353 yards per game. 

At the season’s midway point, Illinois ranks as the second worst defense by total yardage in the Big Ten. However, their three-week stretch of strong performances against Maryland, Virginia and Charlotte was promising. If Bielema and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters can find a way to rekindle the magic from that stretch, then Illinois could at least have the look of a competent defense by season’s end.  

Wisconsin came in last week and commanded the game from start to finish to the tune of 491 total yards of offense, but the performance can be attributed in part to the offense not being able to stay on the field for much time at all. The Illinois offense registered nine first downs to Wisconsin’s 30, so the defense had to spend most of the game on the field and was clearly tired by game’s end. Regardless, giving up almost 500 yards, in any context, isn’t exactly the sign of a strong unit, so the school’s still out on what Illinois has in their defense.

Close games have proven to be problematic.

Being 2-5 suggests Illinois is struggling in most types of games. But Illinois has been especially shaky in their three losses that have come within one score. Against UTSA, the Illini were down seven when they got the ball back with 1:31 remaining and got all the way down to the UTSA 15-yard line before the offense stalled. 

Illinois led 17-10 over Maryland when they punted the ball to them with 4:50 remaining. They then proceeded to break down on defense to allow a touchdown, get pushed back to their own 7-yard line on offense and allow Maryland the yardage necessary to get in range for a game-winning field goal. 

The Purdue loss may be the most controversial, as Illinois opted for a punt on fourth and two on the Purdue 34-yard line when up 9-6. The punt led to a Purdue march down the field for what became the game-winning touchdown. 

The Illini did have a close 30-22 win over Nebraska, but Illinois was up by two scores until 2:41 was remaining in the game. Ultimately, Illinois might have another win or two if they had been a bit stronger at executing in the clutch on both sides of the ball. 

The Ugly

The quarterback situation is…messy.

The optimist in me wants to sugar coat this, but, truthfully, there is no sugar to be had; Illinois doesn’t seem to have a quality starting quarterback on the roster right now. Week one starter Brandon Peters has looked shaky on almost every snap he’s played. His biggest plus is his arm strength, but it doesn’t matter if he can’t connect with the deep ball. His longest pass so far was a 40-yard pass in the Maryland game — a game in which he went 10 of 26 passing — and he hasn’t completed a pass longer than 20 yards in any other game all year. 

Peters did incur a shoulder injury in week 1 which held him out for a couple games, but he’s been back for long enough now that the rust should have worn off. Bielema has given Peters an abnormally long leash, but it starts to make more sense when you look at the backup: Artur Sitkowski. 

Sitkowski had a strong relief performance of an injured Peters in Illinois’ week one win over Nebraska, but he hasn’t done much since. He had two mediocre performances against UTSA and Virginia in which he completed roughly 50% of his passes, but the low point of his season came last week against Wisconsin. When he came into the game to relieve Peters who’d gotten hurt, he opened with 12 straight incompletions. 

With Sitkowski and Peters as the only contenders for starting quarterback on the roster, the situation has devolved to the point where it’s unclear who the starter will be next week against Penn State. Bielema doesn’t have anyone who’s earned his trust under center, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him looking at the transfer portal for new options come the offseason. 

What’s going on with the offensive line?

While the quarterback play has been undoubtedly subpar, the offensive line hasn’t protected Peters and Sitkowski very well. Currently, Illinois is tied for allowing the third most sacks in the Big Ten with 15 through their first seven games. Wisconsin does have an elite defense, but it seemed that the quarterback was almost constantly under pressure last week, which certainly contributed to the team being shut out offensively. 

Unfortunately, Illinois finds themselves where no team wants to be: with a losing record and a roster without much future talent. There are some bright spots toward the future — like McCray — but there hasn’t been time yet for Bielema to stock the roster with his own recruits. In the meantime, Bielema and the Illini will look to make the best of a tough situation and march ahead with the players they do have.

 

@WesHollenberg

[email protected]