Illinois hosts Virginia as it hopes to return to win column, remain undefeated at home

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Sydney Laput

Junior defensive back Devon Witherspoon (31) celebrates with sophomore defensive lineman Johnny Newton (4) during Saturday’s game against Wyoming. The Illini will be back at Memorial Stadium on Saturday to go against Virginia.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

The Illini return home to the comfort of Memorial Stadium as they host the Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday at 3 p.m. After a tough loss at Indiana last Friday, the Illini look to get revenge in a week two rematch from last season, a game the Cavaliers won handily in Charlottesville, 42-14.

Much has changed for the teams since they last met, but the one constant is the Cavalier offense. 

Senior Brennan Armstrong is back under center for Virginia after a stellar 2021 season, where the quarterback finished fourth in the nation in passing yards, racking up 4,449 in twelve games. 

“We saw it first hand as well a year ago,” said Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. “He’s just an incredible athlete who can throw the football.”

Armstrong will have a lot of help from his surrounding core, as his statistically top three receivers from last season return. Junior Dontayvion Wicks, seniors Keytaon Thompson and Billy Kemp all had 725 or more receiving yards last season. 6-feet-7-inch junior receiver Lavel Davis, who missed last season due to injury, has returned as another dominant figure in the Cavalier offense. Davis started his season with a bang, leading Virginia receivers with 89 yards, averaging 22.3 yards per reception with a touchdown in a 34-17 win over Richmond.

With Armstrong and his receivers returning, the only question was the run game for a team that lost its top two running backs and all five starting linemen. First-year head coach Tony Elliott, who was the former offensive coordinator at Clemson, prioritized running the ball during the offseason.

“One of our goals is to limit explosive plays. You categorize that by three or less, and you feel like you did decent during the course of the game,” Walters said.

Transfers and multiple recruits make up the offensive line, which impressed in week one against Richmond, allowing no sacks. On paper, the Illini have a much better defensive front than Richmond, and could influence the game at the line of scrimmage to prevent big plays and force turnovers.

Illini sophomore defensive lineman Johnny Newton is coming off the best game of his career. He totaled nine pressures, tallied five hits on the quarterback, and registered one sack. An inexperienced offensive line give Newton the perfect conditions to wreak havoc.

The defense for the Cavaliers is the polar opposite of the offense. A unit that struggled mightily last year when they allowed 35 ppg against major conference opponents. Elliott brought defensive coordinator John Rudzinski from Air Force to clean up the defense after coaching the Falcon’s 20th-ranked total defense in the nation in 2021.

Although the Illini only managed 14 points in the 2021 matchup, sophomore running back Chase Brown and sophomore receiver Isaiah Williams have grown significantly in the past year. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. and senior quarterback Tommy DeVito were at their previous team, making this a completely new offense for the Cavaliers to face.

The Cavaliers allowed 4.9 yards per carry to Richmond running backs last week and, similar to 2021, looked scrambled defensively when guarding a no-huddle offense. This plays to the advantage of the Illini, who are a running team and have sped up big-time since Lunney arrived.

The Cavaliers’ preparation this week has anticipated “chaos” at Memorial Stadium. The team repeatedly played the Illini fight song at practice on Monday and Tuesday, which Elliott thinks will benefit them

“By the time they go to sleep tonight, that’s all they’re going to hear,” Elliott said.

Look for the carries to be spread out on Saturday, after Lunney Jr. expressed concern about Brown’s workload following Indiana.

“As special as he is and as tough as he is in the Big Ten, you’re not going to be able to get away with (36 carries) in the long haul, just from a health standpoint,” Lunney Jr. said.

Sophomore Reggie Love could see more carries on Saturday if that is the case, and more Illini could join him in the offensive mix after last week’s struggles. 

“We’ve got to take care of the ball better, and we’ve got to have touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone area,” Lunney Jr. said.

If the Illini take care of the ball, Lunney believes they have a chance to get their revenge from last year.

 

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