Improved passing game gives Illinois hope against Wisconsin

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

Improved passing game gives Illinois hope against Wisconsin

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Sure, Illinois running back Chase Brown has gashed opposing defenses, but throughout the first three games of the season, questions about whether he could replicate that sort of production against the likes of Wisconsin and Iowa are still unanswered. 

If the Chattanooga game provides an accurate assessment, the Illinois passing offense continues to improve, which will help the Illini craft a balanced offense against elite defenses and force them to play the Illini rushing attack honestly. 

Fifth-year senior quarterback Tommy DeVito played his best game yet in an Illini uniform, throwing for 329 yards and three touchdowns. However, while it was reassuring to see DeVito flash his 4-star potential, the bigger development could be offensive coordinator Barry Lunney’s ability to tailor the offense toward a vertical-passing game attack, something that was lacking against Wyoming and Indiana. 

Nine different Illini players caught a pass on Thursday. Lunney’s plan to have his quarterback be a distributor has helped the Illini pass catchers develop confidence as well as finding pleasant surprises that were missing under former offensive coordinator Tony Petersen last season. 

“Yeah, that’s a staple (of the offense),” junior wide receiver Isaiah Williams said. “Lunney knows how to get guys open, he knows how to scheme plays.” 

Last season, Williams led the team with 47 receptions for the entire season. Williams already has 28 receptions through four games. But, Williams has been a known quantity for years within the Illini community and his ability to test secondaries hasn’t been questioned. Lunney’s arrival in Champaign has helped sophomore pass catcher Pat Bryant elevate his game drastically, something many Illinois fans didn’t know could happen. 

Bryant set a career high in receiving yards – 112 – against the Mocs. After only having 98 yards total last season, Bryant has provided DeVito a consistent big play threat. In the 2nd quarter, it appeared that Bryant scored a 70-plus yard touchdown on a short pass, but the play was called back because of a holding call. Regardless, Bryant was pleased with his performance and credits his relationship with DeVito for the success.

“At the practice, every time he throws me the ball, he knows I’m going to catch it,” Bryant said. “It’s the same relationship off the field. We talk about football, watching football, going out to eat.”

While the “Law Firm of Newton and Randolph,” which refers defensive linemen Johnny and Keith, respectively, has created some publicity following a stellar start to the season, the dynamic duo of Williams and Bryant should earn some headlines two after the pass catchers have helped jump start the Big Ten’s worst passing offense from last season.

“I think (Bryant) is a good compliment to Isaiah (Williams),” head coach Bret Bielema said. “Those two guys cover a lot of ground, and I’m excited to see those two grow. Throw in the combination of Chase (Brown) with Josh McCray… I think this offense is something that can be special.” 

Bielema, who’s known for affection for running the football, inferred that he’s been pleased with the direction of the offense under Lunney after just four games. But at Thursday practice, Bielema ordered the offense to stay after practice and take extra reps because “he wanted them to play cleaner.”

“I’m glad I did that,” Bielema said. “I think you saw that and the way we executed.”

The Illini offense came into this matchup with eight committed turnovers in their previous two games – Indiana and Virginia. While the Illini’s ability to force constant pressure on Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong made the sloppiness a moot point, the lack of ball security against the Hoosiers is what has probably kept this Illini squad from its first 4-0 start since 2011.

But the competition is about to pick up real quick, with Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota on deck. While their next opponent – Wisconsin – has struggled on offense, the defense is still one of the top units in the nation, overseen by longtime defensive coordinator Jim Leonard. While the Badgers may only score 14 to 17 points, the Badger front seven could stuff the Illini running game and force DeVito to beat them through the air. 

Bielema, the former head coach of the Badgers, is “very proud” of the accomplishments he achieved at Wisconsin – three Big Ten championships. However, Bielema believes that has nothing to do with next Saturday’s matchup. 

Bielema, who’s departure from Wisconsin to take the Arkansas job in 2012 is well-known within college football circles, said that he’s been contacted by numerous television organizations who want to air a special about his return to Madison. 

Bielema declined.

“I want this to be about the University of Illinois going to Wisconsin,” Bielema said.

 

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