Column | Illini need offensive overhaul for Big Ten contention in 2023

Coach+Bret+Bielema+walks+the+field+on+Aug.+27.%0AThe+Illini+seek+to+improve+after+a+defeat+from+Mississippi+State+during+the+ReliaQuest+Bowl+on+Monday.

Sydney Laput

Coach Bret Bielema walks the field on Aug. 27. The Illini seek to improve after a defeat from Mississippi State during the ReliaQuest Bowl on Monday.

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

Bret Bielema’s postgame Reliaquest Bowl press conference

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The month of October couldn’t have gone any better for the Illini football program. Preseason picked to finish sixth in the West, the Illini bullied West division peers with a swarming defensive line and a punishing rushing attack, finishing with a 4-0 record. 

The Law Firm of Keith Randolph and Jer’Zhan Newton garnered headlines. Junior running back Chase Brown was earning Heisman Trophy hype following a 40-carry masterpiece against Minnesota. Senior quarterback Tommy DeVito looked like the steal of the transfer portal and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. earned himself a contract extension. 

Following a dominant 26-9 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Illini improved to 7-1 and clinched a winning record. But the preseason goal of just making a bowl vanished; instead, reaching the pinnacle of college football alongside programs like Georgia and Ohio State was the new aspiration. 

“Off the radar, off the grid, a little bit down the list, a team that I think could control their own destiny to get to the playoff — like, I think if they win out — Illinois,” ESPN analyst David Pollack said, according to 247 Sports. 

Playoff hopes — and a potential Rose Bowl bid — made Illini fans forget basketball season was only a week away. At last, football season was not painful, but enjoyable. A West Division title was literally in Bret Bielema’s backpocket … right? Just beat 3-5 Michigan State and 5-4 Purdue at home. 

Since defeating Nebraska, the Illini went 1-4 in its final five games — albeit they were all one-possession losses. But the defensive line ability to overwhelm a quarterback became nonexistent. Teams started to bottle up the rushing attack and Tommy DeVito struggled to carry the offense without Heisman-level play from Brown. 

A ReliaQuest Bowl — formerly known as the Outback Bowl — is no laughing matter, but this team seemed destined for more, according to analysts in early November. However, does a weak finish prove how far the program has come along? 

“I think if we are disappointed with an eight-win season, we’ve made a step in the right direction,” head coach Bret Bielema said at the post-game press conference. “But by no means am I going to settle for an eight-win season.”

2022 will be considered a breakthrough year for Illinois. Eight wins is the program’s highest total since 2007 and the way the Illini won against Big Ten West rivals was impressive. A 34-10 victory over Wisconsin got Paul Chryst fired. A 26-14 victory over Minnesota was deceivingly close — they outgained the Golden Gophers by nearly 300 total yards of offense. 

But is the 2022 blueprint sustainable for Big Ten success? The competition is about to get a lot tougher. 

The Wisconsin Badgers are finally moving away from its out-dated offensive “attack.” Newly hired head coach Luke Fickell has lured North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo to Madison, who developed quarterbacks Sam Howell and Drake Maye. The Badgers have also parted ways with Graham Mertz and have replaced him with SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who threw for 33 touchdowns this season. 

The Nebraska Cornhuskers replaced the hopeless Scott Frost with Matt Rhule, who rebuilt Temple and Baylor within two seasons each. Known for having programs that ooze physicality, can the Illini really “out-smashmouth” and bully the Cornhuskers, who historically recruit top-five classes in the conference? 

Iowa has created a self-inflicted wound by allowing nepotism to persist — Brian Ferentz is still somehow the program’s offensive coordinator. But despite finishing dead last in college football in touchdowns scored, the Iowa Hawkeyes were in line to win the West until being upset by Nebraska. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is still on staff and the Hawkeyes just upgraded at quarterback with Cade McNamara, the former Michigan Wolverines who led them to the playoffs in 2021. 

Has the West improvements made the path more difficult for Illinois to navigate through its schedule? Yes. And so will the additions of USC and UCLA, two high-powered offenses that recruit very well. And so will the end of divisions. Once the California schools join the conference in 2024, East-West alignment is likely done, meaning the Illini will have to face Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State more often. 

 Knocking off Wisconsin with only 300 yards of offense seems unlikely. Dominating Nebraska — who played without its starting quarterback Casey Thompson once he fractured his hand in the second quarter — seems unlikely. 

Illinois keeping up in a shootout with Lincoln Riley’s USC offense or Chip Kelly’s UCLA offense seems unlikely — if the status quo is kept intact. 

DeVito performed well with the Illini and he was an upgrade over Brandon Peters and Artur Sitkowski — but that’s a low bar. DeVito was a game manager and he showcased that he couldn’t win a game on his own offensive merits. Even Bielema raised concerns about the offensive struggles under Lunney Jr.

“We need to have an identity,” Bielema said. “It’s easy to say we’re an up-tempo offense, we have the “up-tempro” thing, but what are we, right? At times we are pretty hard to defend but other times we don’t seem to go anywhere in a hurry.”

“It’s truly just executing,” senior offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said about the offense finding an identity. “Knowing and being sure of what we can do on every single play is something that needs to be done.”

DeVito’s attempt to earn a seventh year of eligibility was denied by the NCAA and it could lead to a different look from the Illini next season. Replacing the Syracuse transfer is an Ole Miss transfer, Luke Altymer, a former 4-star recruit who has three years of eligibility left.

Altmyer’s time in Oxford, Mississippi was limited. When he did play, he struggled to complete high-percentage throws — although the sample size is low. But Altmyer’s mobility is an improvement over DeVito, he has familiarity with running an up-tempo offense and he was recruited to come to Illinois while Lunney Jr. was in the room — unlike Devito, who was recruited while former offensive coordinator Tony Petersen was still employed. 

 Lunney Jr. thrived at UTSA with Frank Harris being his quarterback, an experienced dual threat signal caller who helped the Roadrunners average 38 points per game in 2021. 

“The (Illinois) offense made a lot of strides,” Palczewski said about Lunney Jr.’s impact of taking over from Petersen. “We saw what he did last year against us,” referencing the 37 points UTSA dropped against Illinois in an upset victory. 

But while Lunney Jr. thrived with an air attack in UTSA, his Illinois offense relied heavily on the run. Granted, having a player like Brown can lead any coach to feel more inclined to call half-back dives. 

But despite Brown’s career year and consistency, mediocre rushing defenses such as Michigan State and Purdue were able to neutralize him by stacking the box. Sure, Brown would still manage 100 yards, but having to reach that milestone with 35 carries makes his presence less impactful. Eventually, a quarterback needs to be able to pick up some yards through the air and DeVito couldn’t deliver — especially against Mississippi State when he had to rely on sophomore Reggie Love III because of Brown’s opt-out. 

Did the passing game potentially lack necessary personnel to rival Purdue’s air attack? Probably. But while Bielema says the offense lacks identity, the Illini were inclined to run the ball often no matter which defense they faced. 

On a frigid November day, the Illini were up 17-16 over the undefeated Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. With just minutes left in the game, an upset was locked up — as long as they gained just one more first down.   

 Facing a top-ranked Wolverine rushing defense, surely the Illini would elect to try to catch them off guard, right? A quick screen pass or jet sweep to Isaiah Williams? A play action pass down field? A read option to play with a mobile-ish DeVito? 

No. 

Chase Brown, the ball carrier — as Illini followers would regularly hear Illinois Public Address Announcer Gene Honda blast over the speakers — earned two straight carries against a Wolverine defense selling out on the run, totaling a grand total of three yards of offense. Following a penalty on a third and long, the Illini gave Brown another carry. 

The Illini punted. The Wolverines got into field goal range, made the attempt and sent the Illini packing with a third straight loss. 

“At that point during the game, you want Chase Brown to have an impact … Coach (Bielema) and I talked at length about it during the transition time,” Lunney Jr. said about the decision to have Brown try to pick up the first down on the ground days after the game.

Maybe they’ll trust Altmyer more in an analogous situation in 2023. 

 

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