‘Everyone’s bought into the program’: Bielema extends win streak to five, Chase Brown continues historic season, Illinois clinches bowl berth

Illinois+sinebacker+Tarique+Barnes+rushes+to+the+Minnesota+quarterback+during+the+122nd+Illinois+Homecoming+game+on+October+15%2C+2022.

Logan Hodson

Illinois sinebacker Tarique Barnes rushes to the Minnesota quarterback during the 122nd Illinois Homecoming game on October 15, 2022.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

No. 24 Illinois (5-1, 2-1) got out early against Minnesota (4-1, 1-1), extending the Illinois win streak to five on a 26-14 win during the 112th Illinois Homecoming game.

Ahead of the game, many thought it would be a defensive slugfest, much like Illinois’ previous game against Iowa. However, with two of the nation’s best running backs on the field in junior Illinois running back Chase Brown and sixth-year senior Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the game was set for a season-defining Big Ten West matchup.

Although believed to be out after an injury in the first quarter against Iowa, senior quarterback Tommy Devito took the field to lead his team on the first drive. Brown was used both on the ground and in the air, helping the offense maintain an early tempo against the Minnesota defense. The drive culminated in a wide-open pass to Brown up the sideline for a 40-yard touchdown, putting the Illini up early against one of the best defenses in the nation.

“Tommy is an incredibly tough kid,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “Tommy basically said ‘I’m playing in this game’ when I saw him on Sunday.”

The Illinois defense, affectionately known as the ‘fire department’ took the field, hoping to set the tone early as they have in so many games before. Junior defensive back Devon Witherspoon made sure it was him again, driving Minnesota wide receiver Daniel Jackson to the turf. While Minnesota started gaining some momentum on the back of Ibrahim, pressure by sophomore defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr and sophomore Seth Coleman led Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan to throw a lob down the field. With so much time in the air, senior defensive back Kendall Smith came down with the ball at the Illinois 8-yard line.

After another key stop by the Illinois defense under defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, Illinois took the ball back at their 13-yard line. Brown, DeVito and sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Williams exploded back onto the field, going 70 yards down the field and taking a risky fourth down to keep the drive alive in the red zone. Despite the efforts of the play-calling and players after the catch, the Minnesota defense was able to hold them to a field goal, increasing the Illinois lead to 10.

Ibrahim made sure that his team was not left in the dust, going 44 yards down the field to the Illinois 22, setting them up in the red zone for the first time in the game. Morgan finished the drive off a 9-yard touchdown run, cutting the deficit to seven after the point after. The touchdown ended Illinois’ streak of allowing zero touchdowns at home, an honor they held for seven weeks.

“It’s next play mentality,” senior defensive back Quan Martin said. “We just knew we had to bounce back. The defense is tough, they play hard.”

In a long and extensive 8-minute drive, Illinois kept chipping away at the Minnesota defense, going 72 yards on 19 plays. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr tried to call a trick play and deep shot when looking for points to end the half, but the Minnesota defense did not fall for the deception, holding Illinois to another field goal.

Minnesota exploded on the second-half opening kickoff, taking the return 92 yards to the Illinois 4-yard line. After a quick handoff to Ibrahim, it put the momentum solidly on Minnesota’s side and gave them their first lead of the game.

Illinois made sure they responded, running well with Brown and throwing a deep shot to junior wide receiver Brian Hightower, placing the Illinois offense on the Minnesota 5-yard line. The 35-yard play followed by a read option by DeVito, allowing him to skip into the end zone brought life back to Memorial Stadium after being depleted by the Minnesota touchdown.

Both team defenses stepped up on the next few drives, exchanging field position as the game went to the fourth quarter. Sophomore defensive lineman Johnny Newton, Coleman and freshman linebacker Gabe Jacas contributed massively, with Jacas leading the team in tackles by the end of the third quarter. Minnesota elected to punt on a fourth-and-short opportunity, handing the ball back to the Illinois 20-yard line.

Lunney Jr kept the play calls to short passes and runs with Brown, hoping that one of the runs broke through. Some glimpses did come on the drive, with a 14-yard run to put them in the red zone. A pass interference call against Minnesota brought them closer to scoring, possibly putting the game away for good. Despite targets to the end zone, they were unable to reach the orange turf, putting up their third field goal of the game, making it a two-score game.

Minnesota got a break during a third-and-one situation as sophomore defensive back Taz Nicholson got flagged for pass interference. Senior defensive back Sydney Brown came up big on the next play, coming in with speed to break up a pass to a Minnesota tight end.

“We got a lot of pride,” junior linebacker Tarique Barnes said. “We still got a lot of work to do. (A bowl game) is not a the end all be all.”

Redshirt freshman kicker Fabrizio Pinton made another field goal putting the Illini up 12 against the Gophers. Martin prevented Minnesota from driving down the field late in the fourth quarter, snatching his second interception of the season. Minnesota threw another pick to Sydney Brown on their final drive, effectively sealing game.

Chase Brown tallied his eighth consecutive 100+ rushing yard game, going for 180 yards on the ground on 41 attempts and achieved his second 1,000 yard season in a row.

“I’m willing to whatever it takes to win games,” Chase Brown said. “This is just the start. We all expect to play at this level and continue to win games.”

DeVito showed out for his return after injury, going for 252 yards on 32 attempts and notching two touchdowns, one on the ground and another on the air.

“(Tommy’s) a competitor,” Brown said. “His ability to extend the play in the pocket is unlike anyone in this conference, in the nation. It’s fun to play with a guy like that.”

The Illinois defense continued to show why they are one of the elite groups in the nation, holding Minnesota passers to a 29% completion percentage, two of seven on third downs and gaining a net total of 180 offensive yards and only six pass completions.

1983 was the last time that Illinois beat Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin in the same season and Illinois’ new 6-1 record is their best since 2011.

Illinois will head into a much-deserved bye week after going undefeated against major Big Ten West opponents to start the back half of their season. Illinois now holds the lead in the Big Ten West, giving them the best shot in years to win the division.
Illinois plays Nebraska on October 29th in Lincoln to start their final split of Big Ten games and the season.

“Today didn’t happen because of this week it’s happened because of the way we’ve done things since January,” Bielema said.

Just like Bielema, the players aren’t surprised that they’re 6-1 in mid-October.

“Oh yeah (we knew),” Martin said. “Everyone’s bought into the program and we execute and prepare the right way. Those are the results you get.”

 

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