Last season was the first for Bret Bielema as head coach at Illinois. The Illini finished the year 5-7, but there were plenty of positives in Bielema’s first year. After a 1-4 start, Illinois finished the year 4-3 in their last seven games including some big road wins at #7 Penn State and Minnesota.
Bielema’s teams are known for having a good offensive line and the run production took a big step last season. Illinois ranked 53rd in the nation in rush yards per game. But they also ranked 121st in passing yards per game. That ranks dead last out of the Big Ten teams and only nine teams in the country gained less yards per game through the air. New offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. comes in to try and change that.
Bielema has not yet named a starting QB. It will either be Art Sitkowski who appeared five games last season before getting injured or Syracuse transfer Tommy Devito. Chase Brown and Josh McCray are really talented running backs that should help stabilize a run game. There are still questions on offense as we head into the season.
The defense as a whole took a big step forward in year one under Bielema. They went from 113th (467.3) in yards allowed per game in 2020-21 to 43rd (366.6) in the country in 2021-22! A decrease in over 100 yards per game!
One specific area of improvement was the pass rush. The Illini had their highest sack total (30) in a season since 2011. In the secondary, last year’s leading tackler Sydney Brown returns and could jump to be an All-Big Ten Safety. Devon Witherspoon looks like he can be a shutdown corner. There was some turnover among the linebackers, but that’s where we’ll have to see how Bielema’s system can plug in some new names.
Right now, it appears the defense is still ahead of the offense, but an increase in offensive production would be a huge help to the defense so they don’t have to be on the field the majority of the game.
Let’s take a look at the Illini’s schedule below. Opponent’s team ranking is included on the right side. The rankings are the averaged rankings from over 20 different pre-season rankings. For reference, Illinois is ranked 71st.
The Illini have some competitive games early, but they are ranked as the better team in all four of their first four games. A 4-0 start would be ideal before running into Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota in consecutive weeks. I think a bowl game is definitely a possibility and would be another big step in the right direction for this program.
This team is trending in the right direction after year one and Bret Bielema is an easy guy to like as a fan. You can see how passionate he is about the game. I’m really excited to watch this team in Bielema’s second season.