Notes, player grades: Illinois lassos Wyoming, kicking off 2022 with win

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Sydney Laput

Senior quaterback Tommy DeVito congratulates junior running back Chase Brown on his touchdown during the game against Wyoming on Saturday.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

Heading into the 2022 season, many question marks were written about the future of Illinois football heading into head coach Bret Bielema’s second season in Champaign. With a new offense in place and new quarterback came new anticipation for the season, similar to that of Week 0 last year, where the team beat Nebraska 30-22.

With the team starting off the game with a touchdown in the first minute, energy was high on a sunny day in Memorial Stadium. The rest of the game had its ups and downs, answering some questions but creating some more too.

 

Chase Brown, Canadian Stallion

If it wasn’t apparent by the first offensive play of the game, the junior out of Ontario was going to be a massive part of the offense. While new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. emphasized the need for Illinois to be a passing threat since the start of his tenure in Champaign. Despite this, the ground and pound combo of Brown and sophomore Josh McCray were still essential disruptors to the Wyoming defense.

Brown ended his day with 19 carries for 151 yards and two rushing touchdowns, averaging 7.9 yards a carry. Twitter was blowing up as Brown began creeping into the national conversation of dominant running backs. If this efficiency keeps up, there’s no doubt that he’ll break 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season.

 

Second-string players

While the game was considerably out of Wyoming’s reach, the coaching staff decided to pull out most of the starters in place for some second-string players. Despite the predicted decline of productivity, the team still played pretty well. Sophomore running back Reggie Love III managed to carve out chunks of the Wyoming defense on multiple runs, ending his short night with three carries for 46 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile on defense, freshman defensive back Matthew Bailey and redshirt-freshman defensive back Tyler Strain timed two passes well enough to come close to picking it off.

Depth is often a serious issue as the season continues. Bielema has publicly stated on multiple occasions prior to the game that there are plenty of positions that have immense amounts of depth. With the possibility of injuries being expected throughout the season, the team may not be in as much danger of regressing if a starter goes down.

 

Offense: B+

After a year of lackluster performance after lackluster performance under former offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, the team putting up 38 points was a sigh of relief. However, much like last year, this could change week to week. 

With senior transfer Tommy DeVito under center the team looks more controlled and less confused. Could it be the quarterback? The scheme? The playcalling? Only time will tell. But there’s one thing for sure, the offense showed that they could pass the ball and compliment that with a great running game. Though there were some signs of predictability in the run game, the Illini played to their strengths. The reliance of the running backs gives more time for DeVito and the passing game to find their timing and polish up accuracy (which was another sign of concern). With time, however, the offense will take more deep shots and spread the field, or at least we hope it does.

The running game is built upon a great offensive line. After losing key pieces to the front five of the offense, Bielema and his staff placed the best players available to fill in the spots. JUCO transfers Zy Crisler and Isaiah Adams both held their own in their first Big Ten outing. With Alex Pihlstrom, Alex Palczewski and Julian Pearl keeping the pocket clean for DeVito throughout the night, it gave him more time to make his reads. At his previous school, DeVito was sacked in every FBS game he had played in. The streak ended on Saturday.

 

Defense: A

The defense is back like it never left.

After a dominant last half of the 2021 season under defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, the defense made big plays against big opponents. Most notably, the 9OT game against Penn State in the Happy Valley and against a then ranked Minnesota team.

Much like the offense, they lost multiple key players in every single level of the defense. However, they also have seemed to have found a working combination that has kept the quality and efficiency of the squad.

The Cowboy offense went 1-for-12 on third down and zero-for-one on fourth downs, scoring only two field goals. Wyoming only was able to target the end zone once in the entire game, but was broken up by senior safety Sydney Brown.

Junior defensive back Quan Martin also shone against Wyoming, recording seven tackles and three pass breakups, which led the team. One of the biggest dangers on defense is opposing offenses exploiting the weak side of the field. So far, the Illinois defense shows no signs of letting that happen.

The reason they didn’t get an A+ was because of the inability to hold quarterbacks in the pocket. Although Wyoming quarterback Andrew Peasley had an abysmal day passing, he managed to stay efficient on his feet. Peasley had eight carries for 76 yards, with his longest one being a 37-yard run-option that put the Cowboys in scoring position. Though the scrambling got contained later on in the game, it does create concern if and when Illinois has to face a more dual threat quarterback.

 

Special teams: B

However tough it is to follow after such a dynamic duo in now graduated Blake Hayes and James McCourt, the 2022 special teams unit was responsible for creating more questions than answers.

An immediate positive was the kick return team, who started off the game strong with the help of senior kick returner Peyton Vining who opened up the season with a 43-yard return. There’s really no other way to juice up your team at the start of the game than with a massive return. The effort by Vining paid off almost immediately, allowing the offense to score in two plays.

Junior kicker Caleb Griffin went one-for-three on field goals, with both misses being from 40+ yards. Bielema went on to explain in his post-game press conference that one was a miscalculation and another was an operational failure. While the reasoning is fair, it does create distress. More opportunities should finish painting the picture of what Griffin could do. However, if he can’t figure it out, it does put in jeopardy the Illini’s opportunities to win games by a field goal throughout the season.

Redshirt freshman punter Hugh Robertson, on the other hand, managed to show that he’s capable of filling in the boot of Blake Hayes, a former Ray Guy Award finalist. Robertson punted four times for an average of 46.2 yards, giving the defense a decent amount of breathing room to hold the Wyoming offense, which paid dividends in the long run.

 

Final Notes

While optimism is high in Champaign on Saturday night, I can’t seem to get rid of the skepticism I have with this team. Though the team played well overall, they played against Wyoming, who lost significantly more players than Illinois and have a bigger issue at quarterback than initially perceived. Illinois’ schedule only gets harder from here, and while Indiana might not be the toughest competition in the Big Ten, it’s still a Big Ten school and an opportunity to test themselves against a more comparable opponent.

 

@JonathanAlday7

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