Illinois football final grades: Defense shows significant improvements, offense remains mediocre, special teams dazzle

The+Illinois+football+team+celebrates+with+the+Land+of+Lincoln+Trophy+after+winning+the+game+against+Northwestern+on+Nov.+27.+The+Daily+Illini+sports+staff+gives+out+their+end+of+season+football+grades.

Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

The Illinois football team celebrates with the Land of Lincoln Trophy after winning the game against Northwestern on Nov. 27. The Daily Illini sports staff gives out their end of season football grades.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

And just like that, the Illinois football season has come to its end. While it would have been easy to end a losing season quietly, Bielema’s squad found a way to finish on a high note in a 47-14 drubbing of Northwestern to move up to 5-7.

Looking back on the campaign, I’d be picking at low-hanging fruit to categorize it as turbulent. But that doesn’t make it any less true. The Illini started the season 1-4, but they also found a way to win consecutive road games against ranked opponents later in the season against Penn State and Minnesota.

Undoubtedly, Illinois was a better team in its season finale than it was when it started, which is especially impressive given just how weird the season was. Here’s a short list of some unexpected events this season: Illinois overhauled its coaching staff, experienced a mid-season quarterback competition despite having an established starter going into the season and had its head coach catch COVID-19 and miss a game.

Bielema inherited a roster full of upperclassmen, including one of the highest returning senior classes in the nation. There’s certainly something to be said for Bielema getting this many older players to trust him in year one. On top of keeping seniors, there’s no doubt that teaching them a new system after years of playing under Lovie Smith was its own task.

On top of everything, Illinois was just a plain bad football team in Smith’s final season in Champaign. There is no hiding that can be done behind a 2-6 record. And, in spite of it all, Bielema brought the Illini back toward respectability.

With a full season of Illinois football in the books, it’s time to look back and give some overall grades for the year.

Offense: C+

Even a C+ might be generous here. The offense ended up third to last in the Big Ten in points per game at 20.2 behind a solid running attack and an equally frail passing game.

The good news is the ground game was fueled by two younger players in Chase Brown and Josh McCray. Brown amassed a 1000-yard season behind two different games in which he surpassed 200 yards on the ground. McCray, a true freshman, was no slouch himself and had multiple games in which he surpassed 100 yards. With two legitimately talented backs on the roster, the Illini have a chance to be dangerous on the ground going forward.

The passing game is a bit of a different story. This season saw Brandon Peters and Artur Sitkowski take turns putting up mediocre performances before Sitkoswki went down with a season-ending broken arm against Penn State. From there, Peters took the starting job and did a commendable job. His touches decreased drastically, but his efficiency increased, leading to one of the most fruitful four-game stretches in his time with the Illini.

Overall, Illinois landed dead last in the Big Ten in passing yards per game at 156.2. They weren’t particularly efficient, either, at 51.2%. The one bright spot was a lack of interceptions, with the Illini having the least in the Big Ten with six.

Peters will finally graduate after being in college for what seems like forever, so Illinois will have to look to either a healed Sitkowski or someone new next year. Given the lack of a clear successor, it might be a bit before the Illini have their quarterback situation under control.

Defense: B

Just like everything else on this team, the defense improved as the season went along. Initially, nothing seemed to be working for new defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, as the Illini saw their opponents average 33.7 points against them in their first three games of the season. After Illinois lost 42-14 to Virginia, however, a switch seemed to flip. Through the other nine games of the season, Illinois opponents averaged only 18 points per game, a figure that would have landed the Illini fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense had they maintained that pace all season.

In total, Illinois ended up eighth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing a respectable 21.9 points per game overall. The Illini had a stout passing defense, allowing 215.2 yards per game. The ground game was somewhat less effective, allowing 151.1 yards per game. The Illini will lose some pieces in the offseason, but Walters has proven he can coach up a defensive unit when given enough time.

Special teams: A

If there was one constant this season, it was the tandem of Blake Hayes and James McCourt operating as Illinois’ strongest unit by far. Hayes capped off what has been an excellent career with the Illini by setting the program record for 50+ yard punts in a season and overall record for most punts within the 20-yard line. Hayes even had an 80-yard punt at one point this season, the seventh longest in program history.

McCourt was no slouch himself, going 18/23 on field goals. He set the program record for field goals over 50 yards this season when he went up to eight total in his time with the Illini.

For an Illini team flirting with mediocrity, it can take pride that it has one unit that legitimately deserves high praise thanks to McCourt and Hayes.

All things considered, year one of the Bret Bielema era surpassed expectations. The Illini had a laundry list of potential excuses for ending up with a low win total, yet they wound up nearing .500 by year’s end instead. Things didn’t go perfectly — they rarely do — but going from a 2-6 to a 5-7 football team without major roster additions demonstrates nothing short of coaching excellence.

With a successful first season in hand and a new recruiting class on the horizon, the future is finally starting to look bright for the Illini.

@WesHollenberg