‘Something I’ll never forget’: Illinois dances on Virginia, exacts revenge on Cavaliers for 2021 fourth-quarter antics

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

After a heartbreaking 23-20 loss on a Friday night in Bloomington, Ind., the team took the three-hour bus ride back to Champaign. Once head coach Bret Bielema got back to his office at the Smith Football Center at 3 a.m, he sat at his desk, watching his players walk to their vehicles.

“I knew they were emotionally hurting.”

After a Saturday day of recovery that let emotions settle, Bielema felt something different about his Sunday team meeting.

“It wasn’t like there was disappointment — it was like anger,” Bielema said. “They knew that they had one that got away from us.”

“We put the game behind us,” defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. said. “There was nothing we could do about it.”

For the rest of the week, their match against Virginia loomed. The incoming date against the Cavaliers marked the first of seven rematch games in their 2022 schedule.

“When I saw the schedule and (Virginia was) on there, I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is it.’”

When the team traveled to Charlottesville, Va., last season, their flaws were put on full display, with then-starting quarterback Art Sitkowski finishing with 221 passing yards, a touchdown and a pick on 45 attempts. The running game never got the chance to shine as the team only managed 116 yards on 27 carries.

On defense, Cavalier quarterback Brennan Armstrong torched the Illini secondary, passing for 405 yards and five touchdowns in the air on 46 attempts.

By the time the Cavaliers put their fifth touchdown on the board, players could be seen jumping and dancing, the taste of victory just six minutes away. Much had changed since that early September matchup.

Illinois defensive coordinator changed personnel and made adjustments to the scheme, leading them to become one of the more dominant defensive teams in the Big Ten. Former offensive coordinator Tony Petersen was replaced by former UTSA coordinator Barry Lunney Jr., transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito beat out Sitkowski for the starting job and running back Chase Brown evolved into one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football.

For Virginia, head coach Bronco Mendenhall stepped down at the end of the season, opening the door for former Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott to step into his first head coaching role. Tight end Jelani Woods, one of the Cavaliers’ top targets, declared for the NFL Draft and is now with the Indianapolis Colts.

Heading into the rematch, Illinois Athletics Director of Video, Joe Maggio, found the clip of the Virginia players celebrating and brought it to Bielema. The clip was played all week heading into the game in the locker room, reminding the players of the lack of “respect” they were shown nearly a year ago.

“We’ve had that game in the back of our mind,” Randolph said. “(It shows) great progress, just to get past from last week.”

“There was a lot of talk about ‘the revenge game’ just because of who the outcome went last year,” DeVito said. “I knew it meant a lot to the guys that were here last year … there was a whole thing that they were celebrating last year in the fourth quarter. That was kind of a picture that has been played over and over in meetings and engraved in everybody’s head to remember that when we went out and played.”

Illinois made sure that there would be no talk of the ‘same old Illinois.’ DeVito threw for 196 yards and two touchdowns on 25 attempts while Brown got 146 yards on the ground on 20 attempts.

The defense made sure Armstrong didn’t make it to the endzone, allowing 13 completions on 35 attempts for 180 yards and snatching two picks. Most notably, the Cavalier offense went 2 for 20 on third and fourth downs, only notching a wobbly field goal in the first quarter.

“This was a big statement to me about where we were a year ago and where we are now,” Bielema said. “Respect is a big thing in my life. I wanted this program to be respected.”

“It’s just the football that we play,” Randolph said. “As a D-lineman, I take a lot of pride (in that).”

And their pride showed on the sideline, as they too, started their own dance in the fourth quarter after a massive stop in the red zone to effectively seal the game for the Illini.

“For me, you respect everyone on (the opposing) sideline,” Bielema said. “I quickly put on the headset and put a cease and desist order on that one.”

While Bielema wasn’t a fan of his own team’s antics, the players who left Virginia with a bad taste in their mouths were. They repainted over the memory, replacing it with a potential turning point for the Illini’s young season.

“It was great,” Randolph said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”


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