No. 18 Illini pass Big Ten West test


Logan Hodson

Illinois defense swarms the Minnesota quarterback on Saturday during the 26-14 win.

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

The latest three-game stretch would determine if Illinois was a pretender or a contender in the Big Ten West Division race. 

The Illini passed with flying colors. 

Illinois outscored Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota 69-30 and out gained them in yards 1,092-609. The Illini are now the favorite to represent the West division in the Big Ten Football Championship, as they hold crucial tiebreakers against the trio of opponents. 

Head coach Bret Bielema met with the media after the game and discussed the path forward for his program. 

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Creating history 

“The last time we beat Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin was 1983. I was 13 (years old).

“When we beat Wisconsin at Wisconsin, they gave me a game ball inside, right. And at one point, you know, I told the (team) that I’m gonna give him a game ball. But I didn’t tell him as I was going to hold it till after this week.

“Because I wanted to be able to put on that game ball that you’d beat Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and put all in one big ball right that they can have for the rest of our lives because they’re doing some things that nobody else has ever done.”


Bielema tries to keep his player’s focused on the current matchup, but the head coach is well aware of the milestones his program is achieving in his second season. Illinois was picked to finish last in the division, and it just defeated the top three projected teams in three straight weeks. 

In 19 games, Bielema has developed a program that can dominate the trenches while also adding flair to the offense. The addition of Barry Lunney Jr. as offensive coordinator helped the Illini balance their offense with quick throws and an up-tempo offense while still being able to run the ball at will. 

DeVito’s importance

“My wife always texts me and calls me about everyday the first thing she said — I didn’t even get to say hello to my children — is Tommy playing?

“I think anytime your quarterback plays well, that’s a big deal. Right? I can tell on film when I first watched him, I was like he got some swag to him.”


The Artur Sitkowski-led offense against Iowa performed poorly, and it’s why Minnesota jumped out as a 6.5-point favorite this week when it was unclear if DeVito would play. 

DeVito delivered the best game of his Illini career, finishing with 252 yards, a touchdown and a 95.3 QBR. DeVito’s ankle didn’t seem to bother him at all, as he was still mobile in the pocket and extended plays with his legs. 

DeVito seems to fit well with Lunney’s up-tempo scheme and his quick release on short throws consistently helped the Illini gain first downs. 

Credit to Bielema for actively seeking a transfer portal quarterback even though Sitkowski was still on the roster. Penn State and Minnesota stuck with the status quo — Sean Clifford and Tanner Morgan — and their offenses have suffered because of it. 

Chase Brown for Heisman

“I’ve been reaching out to the people I know … like if (started coaching the Illini three years ago), I think he would be right in the thick of the Heisman race as we speak. 

“It’s just, it’s kind of been late to the party. He got a little bit above last year, and then it’s kind of been on the scene. 

“But if there’s a better player in college football that has had an effect on his program, I’d like to know who it is.”


Brown is leading the nation in rushing after registering 180 yards on 41 carries against Minnesota. He also thrived in the passing game today, scoring a 40-yard touchdown pass on the first drive of the game. 

For Brown to become a Heisman finalist, he will need to have a monster game against Michigan. Crazy to say, but what is Brown’s Heisman moment so far? 41 carries and still producing is impressive, but Brown hasn’t registered SportsCenter-worthy highlights this season. Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota are elite defenses, but they’re also unranked.

Last season, Michigan State’s running back Kenneth Walker III didn’t earn Heisman-hype until upsetting the undefeated Wolverines with his five rushing touchdowns. 

Brown’s Heisman hopes are low right now, but his play has jump-started a stagnant program and has the Illini on a path to a realistic Rose Bowl bid. 

Getting healthy

“We backed off from them on Tuesday. I explained to him why I was doing it and took them out on the field for literally just about 45 minutes. We did a double walk-through (limiting the physicality).

“(I said), ‘If you guys can take care of us on Saturday, I’ll take care of you this week.’


Brown’s 41-carry performance has to take a toll on him, regardless of the success. Bielema regularly coached Heisman-level running backs at Wisconsin — Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon — and he tries to limit the physical demands as much as possible. 

After last year’s season-finale victory over Northwestern, Bielema did not allow Brown to be tackled once during spring or fall practice, waiting for Brown’s first contact to come during the Wyoming-opener. 

Bielema expects sophomore running back Josh McCray to return to the field against Nebraska, which can help take the load off of Brown. McCray had a breakout season last year, specifically against Purdue when he ran for 156 yards. 

The Illini’s opposition has yet to slow down Brown, who’s recorded at least 100 yards in each game. It will be interesting to see if DeVito can win a game with his arm alone, if a team like Michigan can bottle up Brown for around 75 yards. 



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