Minnesota likes, dislikes: Chase Brown continues to shine, defense thrives under Ryan Walters in Illinois football’s upset win

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Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Owen Carney Jr. (99) celebrates with teammates Jartavius Martin (21) and Seth Coleman (49) during Illinois’ 14-6 win over No. 20 Minnesota in Minneapolis on Saturday. The defense dominated from start to finish, while Chase Brown and Brandon Peters played big roles on offense.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Who would have thought we’d be here? Illinois, the same paltry football team that lost four games in a row not so long ago, now has two upset wins over ranked opponents in the last three weeks. The more I watch Illinois football, the less I understand. 

Against Penn State, in its first ranked win, Illinois played well throughout, but the score stayed close from start to finish. The Illini didn’t play any games against Minnesota, leaving no doubt who was the better team on the field on Saturday by leading wire to wire after taking their initial 14-0 lead.

The game only felt close briefly in the fourth quarter when Minnesota scored its first touchdown. Even then, it felt like a tall task for the Golden Gophers to tie the game as they missed their extra point and would have needed a two-point conversion had they been able to score again.

Given Illinois’ unexpectedly assertive triumph, there’s a whole lot to like and not much to dislike.

Likes

I’m running out of superlatives for Chase Brown

It’s hard to believe, but Brown’s 150 rushing yards are his third-largest total in a game this season. Unsurprisingly, the other two games were also Illini wins. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this team, it’s that when Brown goes, so do the Illini. 

The 150-yard mark gets even more impressive when considering Minnesota allowed just 93 rushing yards per game prior to the matchup. Illinois committed to piling extra offensive linemen and tight ends on the field to create holes for Brown, and he certainly took advantage. What makes Brown so special isn’t just his shiftiness; he finds a way to consistently stay upright after contact to get the extra yard. Stack that type of effort into 33 rushes like he had today, and it starts to add up. Don’t look now, but Brown could be quietly making a case for an All-Big Ten team.

Compare offensive coordinator Tony Petersen’s offensive game plan this week to what the Illini did against Wisconsin. Wisconsin provided a similar matchup as the number one rushing defense in the Big Ten. Instead of sticking to Illinois’ strength and trying to run the ball anyway, Petersen gave the ball to their quarterbacks, who went 11/34. The Illini got shut out on Homecoming, a worst-case scenario.

The good news is Illinois seems to have learned from its mistakes and now has a cogent offensive identity. The Illini will run the ball and then run it again and again and again.

The defense isn’t just sneaky good anymore. It’s roaring.

Ryan Walters deserves a lion’s share of credit for the defense’s massive turnaround. It’s unbelievable that this unit has gone from giving up 42 points to Virginia to nearly shutting out a ranked opponent. This week, Walters dialed up a game plan involving stacking the box to nullify much of Minnesota’s elite rushing attack. Heading into the matchup, the Minnesota running offense was averaging north of 200 yards per game. Illinois held them to 89, and it’s a huge part of why it won the game. 

Daring Tanner Morgan to throw worked as well as anyone could have hoped. He went 15/28 for 180 yards and threw two interceptions, including one that ultimately sealed the game for Illinois. As the game wore on, the defense continuously found ways to put pressure Morgan, too, ending the day with six sacks. 

Brandon Peters quietly continues to impress

For all the flak that has gone Peters’ way this season, he finally seems to have come into his own. The stat line this week doesn’t jump off the sheet, 7/9 for 80 yards and a touchdown, but it was wickedly efficient. Peters’ role within the offense has seemingly reduced, and it seems to be working much better for all parties involved. If Peters keeps putting up games like this, everybody may soon forget about his rough start to the season. 

One thing I’ve noticed with Peters in the past couple weeks is how comfortable he’s gotten using his legs. He had six rushes on Saturday for 18 yards — nothing too special — but almost every one of those six attempts yielded a first down to keep a drive alive. By no means is Peters a true dual-threat quarterback, but he seems to have more confidence and authority in taking advantage of holes when he sees them. 

Blake Hayes, clutch punter extraordinaire

There was a singular moment where the game might have gotten dicey. With a little over a minute left, the Illini got stuck in a fourth-and-3 on the Minnesota 43 and had to punt. Had the punt gone awry, the kick could have resulted in a touchback and put Minnesota in decent field position on its own 25. Instead, Hayes surgically placed the ball perfectly in front of the end zone in place for an Illini to pick it up and put Minnesota on its own 2-yard line. 

We need to talk about Kerby Joseph

Joseph might have taken a two-week hiatus since recording a turnover but that sure didn’t matter on Saturday. He made the biggest play in the biggest moment with his game-sealing interception with 38 seconds left and deserves to be commended for it. Joseph has built quite a stat line this season with four interceptions and three fumble recoveries. He’s a key piece of this now scary good Illini defense. 

Dislikes

The penalties are becoming a problem

Bielema attributed last week’s loss to Rutgers to critical penalties coming on three consecutive offensive possessions. Despite the win, the Illini were significantly worse this week, committing seven penalties for 72 yards. They got away safely this time, but the game might have been a shutout if not for a pass interference penalty against Devon Witherspoon in the fourth quarter. If the Illini can’t get themselves under control soon, penalties are the kind of thing that can rear their ugly head at the worst moment. 

14 points is not enough

This win was phenomenal in all aspects of the game, but an elite team would have found a way to run up the score as they shut down the Minnesota offense. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with running the ball repeatedly to churn clock once the Illini had the lead, but it does speak to the level that this team is at. As much as fans might want the Illini to wake up ranked tomorrow, they are still the type of team that needs to scrape by in close wins rather than blazing past the competition. Fourteen points simply will not get it done every week.

It’s taken a few bumps in the road, but Illinois is starting to shape up like a new team under the stewardship of Bret Bielema. It’d be easy to remain skeptical of Illinois after all its disappointments both this year and in years’ past. It’d be just as easy to prematurely jump to calling Illinois a great football team capable of beating ranked teams with regularity. I think reality probably falls somewhere in between.

Illinois already has doubled its win total from last season. No matter what the Illini do in their final two games, the foundation for a sound football program has been built in Champaign. They’re playing for potential bowl eligibility if they win out, but few thought they’d make it this far. Now, they’re playing with house money. 

 

@WesHollenberg

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