Midterm grades: An assessment of how Illinois football has performed after seven games

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Ryan Ash

Running back Chase Brown gets tackled during the game against Wisconsin Oct. 9. Illini football receives an assessment on how they’ve been performing at the past seven games.

By Josh Pietsch, Sports On-Air Editor

We’re seven games in, and the start of the season was a bit of a roller coaster. The Illini opened the college football season by hosting Nebraska, a game in which they were not picked to win. But head coach Bret Bielema and crew surprised many by pulling off the 30-22 win over Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers.

The next week, Illinois was favored against what was anticipated to be a good UTSA team, but it wasn’t able to keep up with the Roadrunners’ offense and fell a touchdown short. At Virginia, Illinois faced another good offense, didn’t play particularly well on either side of the ball and lost by four touchdowns. 

Illinois then lost two games, home against Maryland and at Purdue, both of which they weren’t favored in. But the two ended very similarly, with a lot of fans blaming the losses on conservative fourth-down play calls by Bielema. The Illini lost by a combined seven points in those two contests.

Since then, things have gone as expected. Illinois beat a not-so-good Charlotte team at home by 10, then got embarrassed at home by Wisconsin, 24-0. Some Illini fans thought that game would be closer, but a lot of people, myself included, weren’t that surprised.

The Illini had their first of two bye weeks the weekend of Oct. 16, which left Bielema and crew time to analyze their roster and get some recruiting done. In his press conference Monday afternoon, Bielema hinted that fans would see some changes to who is on the field and that the roster his staff inherited was a lot different than what they had expected.

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    Nonetheless, here’s how I think the offense, defense, special teams and play calling deserve to be looked at through seven games, in the form of a report card.

    Offense: C-

    Imagine you looked at your final grade and the number was 69.7%, but the letter was a C-. That’s what we’ve got here.

    Let’s start with the good because there were a few things to be pleased with. 

    The running back group, specifically the two backs we’ve seen the most this year, have been great. Chase Brown has dealt with some time missed due to injury, but when he’s been fully healthy, he’s been great. Against Charlotte, Brown rushed for 257 yards, which was the fourth-most in a game by an Illini running back in program history.

    The emergence of true freshman Josh McCray has also been great to watch. The muscular Alabama native had a good performance against Maryland and was phenomenal at Purdue. He has the ability to break tackles, gain speed and get into the end zone. He should be fun to watch for years to come. 

    Isaiah Williams also has looked good in his switch from quarterback to receiver. He hasn’t gotten a ton of touches, but that isn’t his fault. He gets open nicely and the fact that he doesn’t have as many receptions is not on him. But when he does get the ball, he makes moves, can pick up speed and is a lot of fun to watch.

    For two and three-quarter games, Artur Sitkowski looked pretty good as quarterback. He’s young, and he threw for over 200 yards in both of his starts. He threw six touchdowns overall and only one interception. That’s about all he played, though, because Brandon Peters returned from his injury.

    Now, it’s time for the bad, and that starts with Peters and the passing game.

    Boy, has it been awful. Since the loss to Virginia, it’s almost like the passing game has been nonexistent. Peters has been inaccurate, missed open receivers and has a grand total of one passing touchdown this season. 

    His inability to make more than one read is bad, but his completion percentage of 48.8% is arguably worse. He tends to hold on to the ball too long as well, and he has been straight up disappointing as a sixth-year college athlete.

    Unfortunately, despite his decent play early on, Sitkowski doesn’t seem to be the answer either. When faced against a good Big Ten defense, Sitkowski wasn’t good. He replaced an injured Peters at halftime, and Wisconsin looked like an NFL defense defending against him. 

    Moving to what was supposed to be the best position group on the team, the offensive line has been almost as disappointing as the passing game. Other than Vederian Lowe, I don’t think any of the main starters have gotten better.

    Doug Kramer has been injured, Blake Jeresaty has struggled significantly against good competition and Alex Palczewski, who I thought coming into the year had the best shot on the team at getting drafted, hasn’t looked great.

    Without good protection, it’s hard for a quarterback to have a great game. But the offensive line isn’t bad to the point that Peters can’t do anything. But since he hasn’t done much, it’s very hard to rate the receivers. 

    I think Deuce Spann, Daniel Barker, Luke Ford, Casey Washington and Donny Navarro have all had moments, but there isn’t nearly enough out of anyone there to be super impressed. Whether it’s their inability to get open, the quarterbacks struggling to get them the ball or a little bit of both, the receivers haven’t done anything eye-opening.

    While 164 rushing yards per game is good, 153 passing is not. Neither is the whopping 17.7 points they’re averaging per game. I’ll talk more about offensive coordinator Tony Petersen later, but his offense has been far below average and needs to get significantly better if the Illini want to ever win another game.

    Defense: B-

    This defense is extremely hard to grade, and I think there are arguments to be made as to why my grade is too high or too low. I went with a B- because I think there isn’t a lot of talent on the defense as a whole, but they’re performing above their expectations and haven’t had many bad games.

    Coming into the year, all Illini fans knew how bad the defense had been during the Lovie Smith era. In 2020, the defense allowed 34.9 points per game, which was dead last in the Big Ten. That number has gone down a lot in this season, at 24.6 points allowed per game.

    The defense looked pretty good against Nebraska, but the two games that followed were quite the opposite. Illinois gave up 37 to UTSA and 42 to Virginia, which is about what people expected the defense to do. 

    The secondary has struggled against passing offenses in years past, and when the defense wasn’t committing turnovers, they were giving up points. 

    But after the loss to Virginia, things changed.

    Since then, the defense is allowing on average only 17.75 points per game. The competition hasn’t been bad either, facing Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin in that stretch. Turnovers at the right times, a better defensive third-down percentage and pure development of players have all gone into this.

    Even against Wisconsin, when the Illini gave up 24 points, the defense wasn’t the problem. It was 10-0 at halftime, and the defense was stuck on the field for the majority of the game.

    The defense still isn’t great, though. The secondary still continues to struggle against competitive quarterbacks late in games and gives up big plays in seemingly unfortunate times (see Maryland and Purdue).

    The defensive line has been pretty good, even earning the fifth-best grade in week five in the win over Charlotte. But they turned around their next game and had probably their worst game of the season against the Badgers’ offensive line and running game.

    For the defense overall, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is doing a lot with a defense that isn’t very skilled. Despite having to deal with a lot of injuries, primarily at linebacker, the defense looks much improved from years prior and has improved throughout the season nicely so far.

    Special Teams: B+

    Illinois almost never returns the ball on kickoffs, so we’re talking primarily about three guys here: Blake Hayes, James McCourt and Ethan Tabel.

    Hayes, in my opinion, is still the best punter in the country and has done his job well this year. Heck, he’s punting so much it’s almost hard not to get into a groove.

    He had an amazing game one against Nebraska, and since then, I will just say he’s done his job. Not every punt is gonna be perfect, but Hayes is consistently getting the job done and really is as skilled as it gets in this game at his position.

    McCourt has also been good. This season, he is 100% on extra points and 8-12 (66.7%) on field goals. He did have an extremely rare miss from inside 30 this season, but his other three misses are from 50+, where he is 3-6 (50%). 

    Coming into this year, my hope was that McCourt would work on his consistency from 35-50 yards, and he’s done that. He is 3-3 in those situations, and I do like his 50% success rate from 50+ yards. It isn’t great, but a lot of college kickers aren’t even given attempts that long, so it speaks to his abilities.

    Ethan Tabel, the long snapper, is someone I included because he is the one making sure those two get to do their job, and he’s been perfect this year. 

    The grade isn’t an “A” since McCourt has some misses, and Hayes has had a few poor punts, but I have high expectations for these guys. They’re good and will continue to get better in their final season as Illini. 

    Play calling: D

    Yeah, not good. Everyone knows about the two fourth-down punt calls by Bielema against Maryland and Purdue, but that hasn’t been all.

    I will give Petersen credit for running the ball on the last drive against Purdue since McCray was having what some would say a “breakout game.” And, how Illinois kept running against Charlotte, which was obvious, but still good. 

    But, the next game, coming after two great rushing performances, Illinois only handed the ball off 11 times. Eleven. I know Wisconsin has a great rush defense, but two things about that were terrible. 

    First, Peters and Sitkowski both threw the ball terribly. When the man throwing the ball can’t complete half the passes he’s throwing, something clearly isn’t working. Second, the running back group is probably the best position group on the team, and just 11 total carries blew my mind.

    It’s more than this, too. Against Maryland, Petersen ran the ball with no timeouts on a draw play very late in the game that gained very few, if any, yards and took vital seconds off the clock. The continuous passing for how bad it has been also just isn’t good.

    Bielema at least adjusted after back-to-back fourth-down botches and went for it in a similar situation against Charlotte, but that isn’t enough for me to raise the grade. 

    Use your weapons and be aggressive, because poor play calling may have cost the team two wins so far this year. 

    @JPietsch14

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