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Illinois Fighting Illini 2021 Football Preview

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Bert’s back in the Big Ten

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Nebraska at Illinois Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Memo to Bret Bielema: Try not to beat Nebraska.

Don’t laugh...because the last two coaches who celebrated a victory over the Huskers found themselves unemployed shortly thereafter. After Nebraska’s late game meltdown in 2015, Bill Cubit was replaced by Lovie Smith. Smith then kept his job by losing four times to Nebraska before last season’s 41-23 victory.

Now, it’s Bielema’s turn to win in Champaign. (But not get fired by beating Nebraska, it seems.) But how will he do it? Chances are he’s going to lean on what worked for him at Wisconsin, though to be honest, the Wisconsin recipe was tried and proven by Barry Alvarez well before Bielema even became a grad assistant at Iowa back in the mid-90’s. Alvarez’s handed off the keys to Bielema like your father did when he let you use the family sedan for prom. (“Don’t wreck it, son.”)

This time, Bielema has to start with the ingredients that Lovie Smith left behind, which wasn’t exactly a solid match with the Wisconsin formula. A good starting point is sixth-year senior quarterback Brandon Peters (6’5” 220 lbs.) Peters spent his first three years at Michigan, playing in ten games after redshirting in the 2016 season. He’s started 16 games at Illinois, missing two to injury and three last season to COVID-19. He’s a career 54% completion rate passer who’s thrown for 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. While he wasn’t a runner at Michigan, he’s averaged 3.5 yards per carry rushing with four touchdowns the last two seasons at Illinois. Backing up Peters should be junior Artur Sitkowski (6’5” 224 lbs.), who started for Rutgers in 2018 and completed 64% of his passes the last two seasons as a part-time contributor.

The Illini have to replace leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (off to the Jacksonville Jaguars) and fourth leading receiver Casey Washington (off to Wake Forest). Junior tight end Daniel Barker (6’4” 250 lbs.) caught 19 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns last season while junior wide receiver Brian Hightower (6’3” 210 lbs.) caught 11 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns. Notre Dame transfer Jafar Armstrong (6’1” 220 lbs.) had a solid season in 2018 as a running back for the Irish, rushing for 383 yards and seven touchdowns and catching 14 passes for 159 yards. But by last season, he was primarily a seldom-used receiver who didn’t touch the ball despite playing in every game from Halloween on. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams (5’10” 180 lbs.) is making the switch from quarterback to receiver permanent. Last year as a quarterback, he was Illinois’ second leading rusher, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.

The Illinois running back room looks pretty solid for 2021, with sophomore Chase Brown (5’11” 205 lbs.) and junior Mike Epstein (6’0” 205 lbs.) returning along with four-star freshman Reggie Love (5’10” 195 lbs.). Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry and 67.5 yards per game, while Epstein averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 52.4 per game. Epstein has had injury problems throughout his career, but ended up playing seven of eight games last season. Depth is further enhanced by the arrival of Arkansas/East Carolina graduate transfer Chase Hayden (5’10” 205 lbs.), who averaged 4.6 yards per carry his first two seasons with the Razorbacks. Illinois ranked third in the Big Ten in rushing last year and should be poised to as-well, if not better in 2021.

Illinois returns three starters on the offensive line, with two more spot starters and a 1-AA All-American competing to play in 2021. Senior right tackle Alex Palczewski (6’6” 330 lbs.) is returning from ACL surgery that ended his 2020 season after four games. Palczewski earned post-season honors after his 2018 and 2019 campaigns and is viewed as a legitimate NFL draft prospect. Center Doug Kramer (6’2” 300 lbs.) also has received honorable mention all-Big Ten honors the last two seasons. Wofford grad transfer Blake Jeresaty (6’2” 290 lbs.) would have contributed last season, but a shoulder injury kept him sidelined last season.

But if there’s one thing that summarized the reason for Lovie Smith’s departure, it was the defense. Despite making a name for himself as a defensive guru in the NFL, Illinois was dead last in the Big Ten in total defense and rushing defense last season...and 13th in scoring defense. Up front, nose guard Roderick Perry (6’2” 315 lbs.) is probably the most noteworthy player; Perry was a 1-AA All-American at South Carolina State before transferring to Illinois last season.

Linebacker could be a key spot where the Illini improve in stopping the run. Second team all-Big Ten inside linebacker Jake Hansen (6’1” 230 lbs.) after totaling 243 tackles the last three seasons. North Carolina State transfer Calvin Hart (6’1” 230 lbs.) was a spot starter in 2019, totalling 35 tackles in ten games including seven for the Wolfpack against Clemson. On the outside, Owen Carney (6’3” 265 lbs.) dipped into the transfer portal, only to return to Illinois two weeks later. The second team all-Big Ten honoree ranked fourth in the conference with 5 sacks last season.

The secondary will depend on finding help for Tony Adams (6’0” 200 lbs.) and Devon Witherspoon (6’0” 170 lbs.) Adams, who can switch between corner and safety, was second on the team with 51 tackles last season with an interception against guess-who. Witherspoon, a cornerback, was sixth on the team with 33 tackles and added two interceptions.

This game is probably the litmus test for Nebraska, because the Huskers haven’t played all that well against Illinois during the Frost era. The best performance was the 2018 team’s 54-35 victory, where the Illini gained 509 yards in a losing effort. The Huskers will have to do some guesswork to figure out what Bielema’s new coaching staff will roll out in Champaign in week zero. This game got moved to late August in order to play in Dublin, a move that was scratched earlier this year as the world tries to get a handle on COVID-19.

Poll

What happens when Nebraska kicks off the 2021 season against Illinois?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Bert gonna do Bert things to Nebraska. Illinois cruises
    (23 votes)
  • 14%
    Illinois breaks out enough new stuff to eek out a first home win of the season.
    (37 votes)
  • 44%
    It’s not pretty, but NU starts off the season with a victory.
    (117 votes)
  • 32%
    Nebraska start putting it all together and wins convincingly.
    (86 votes)
263 votes total Vote Now