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Illinois Fighting Illini Football Cocktail Party Preview // B1G 2022

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Truly we live in unusual times.

Illinois Week 2022 will extend into the month of June for the second time in three years.

Due to some miscalculations, we did some articles out of order. Here, then, is the article that’s supposed to kick off Illinois Week, dropping in the middle of Day Two.

This is the seventh year I will have written for Illinois Week here on Off Tackle Empire, and we’re now on the third (fourth?) head coach in that time frame. Years where I have had 0.500-level expectations include 2015 (hopelessly dashed by the coach being fired six days before game one), 2019 albeit half-heartedly due to a 63-0 home loss very late in the season to an extremely mid Iowa team, and...well, pre-COVID I tried to force myself to have expectations for 2020 but they were never justified.

2022...is not one of those years, but that doesn’t mean things are hopeless.

What Happened In 2021?

Bret “Bert” Bielema happened, at first in a positive way, then in a largely negative way, then in a hugely positive way.

From the time he was hired shortly after Lovie Smith’s dismissal, the new Fighting Illini coach said and did all the things you would expect from someone with the experience and competence necessary to build a functional Big Ten football program. He carefully selected a new staff with a diverse recruiting background while keeping the best parts of his predecessor’s brain trust, he immediately established that he and his staff would be a constant presence at high schools throughout the state of Illinois, and he articulated a clear vision for how to build Illinois into a consistent winner that sounded plausible and familiar to every neighboring school but not to us.

Illinois started the season with a new helmet that brought back my beloved helmet stripes, which was yet another point in the “Bret Bielema Gets It” column. In week zero, they simply stood in a defensive position while Nebraska dizzied themselves with a flurry of capoeira kicks, ultimately withstanding a late comeback from the bewildered Huskers to send Scott Frost on the start of a truly incredible journey to 3-9.

September proved difficult, as the defense was tested by a balanced UTSA offense in what would predictably be the Roadrunners’ best season in program history. Moreover, the Illini offense was not able to find a lot of running room and seemed to only be able to find a few deep shots in the passing game as opposed to anything that would keep the chains moving. The Illini completely and totally failed to show up against Virginia, then played two straight B1G games where they punted on fourth and short in plus territory with a fourth quarter lead. Both were written up as Fall’s Tarts entries for their respective week, and Bielema drew some major heat for insisting that he would absolutely punt on fourth and short again. An uninspiring 10-point win against a fairly bad Charlotte team set up a scoreless homecoming loss against Wisconsin. There sat the Illini at 2-5.

A funny thing happened then.

Illinois totally controled the line of scrimmage in State College and won an unforgettable 9OT duel by the hilarious score of 20-18 against a then-top-10 Penn State team. A head-scratching home loss to Rutgers followed. After the disappointing #ILLINUTGERS performance, Illinois went to the Twin Cities, scored two early touchdowns and then sat on PJ Fleck for the rest of the game. The offense...still wasn’t especially effective, but it was moving the chains enough to give a resurgent defense the rest needed to hold on to a slim lead. The running game got bottled up by Iowa to an extent that a 6-17 passing line for Alex Padilla didn’t cost the Hawkeyes too much, and that was the end of the bowl hopes.

The season had one more game though, and Bret Bielema really did us a great service by finally delivering the lusty, cathartic beatdown of Northwestern we were looking for in 2019, which was 47-7 until the last few minutes. During this game, he (or at least defensive coordinator Ryan Walters) showed he still had some of that “CARD SAID GO FOR 2” pettiness left in the tank by sending a corner blitz on a 3rd and long with a five touchdown lead. That’s the kind of call you make specifically to tell the opposing team and coach to eat shit, and it was a welcome departure from Lovie Smith’s endless contentment.

DC Ryan Walters was given a raise for being a miracle-worker; OC Tony Petersen was shown the door for not doing enough with a limited set of tools. Kerby Joseph went from a second string afterthought to a third round draft pick. Illinois defeated four Big Ten teams in a season for the second time in three years, but unlike 2019, ALL of these felt earned, none were in a monsoon against Purdue and none were against Chris Ash Rutgers.

Wow, That Was A Lot Of Words. So What Now?

Well, yes, I spent a lot of time waxing nostalgic about our glorious 5-7 season where we actually played better towards the end of the season instead of falling apart. The reason for that is because it’s a lot more fun to talk about than our upcoming season.

I’m not entirely certain Tony Petersen had to be fired as OC, but Bielema has done well on most of his coaching hires so far. Either way, what’s happening is Illinois will have a first-year OC while replacing the vast majority of the offensive line snaps, the starting quarterback, a couple receivers and the pass-catching tight end.

LT Vederian Lowe and C Doug Kramer were both drafted and guards Blake Jeresaty and Jack Badovinac graduated. WR Donny Navarro transferred, as did newfound deep threat (and former QB) Deuce Spann. TE Daniel Barker transferred to Michigan State and QB Brandon Peters graduated.

RT Alex Palczewski’s return should bolster that line, but replacing so many starts on the line is tough. Julian Pearl will return at guard and Jordyn Slaughter, who was expected to start last year before breaking an ankle, is back. Nevertheless, in a ball control offense, the development of the offensive line will define how good this team can be.

It’ll have to be a ball control offense, since I’m not sure who’s going to catch the passes. Isaiah Williams returns, but he’s ideally a slotback type of player as opposed to a go-to guy on any given down. Tommy Devito and Art Sitkowski will have a Jerseyite battle for the starting QB spot. It’s hard to imagine the offense looking good, is what I’m saying.

Defense seems more optimistic given the wizardry Ryan Walters created last year. Tony Adams, Kerby Joseph and Jake Hansen are gone, as is Roderick Perry in the middle. Sydney Brown will return at safety and CJ Hart ought to be a massive presence at ILB. I expect to see little change to the 5-2 defense Illinois rolled out last year. Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown are certainly big enough to play nose tackle, but can they do it reliably? That remains to be seen.

I’m beating around the bush. I don’t think this team is going to be very good because I don’t believe in this offense and there’s no immediate-impact players joining the team. I have some concerns about the way the roster’s been built in the early going, but I’ll get to that tomorrow. For now, just know that I’m viewing this season as a write-off in pursuit of 6 wins in 2023.

Schedule

Aug 27: vs Wyoming
Fri, Sept 2: @ Indiana
Sept 10: vs Virginia
Thurs, Sept 22: vs Chattanooga
Oct 1: @ Wisconsin
Oct 8: vs. Iowa
Oct 15 (Homecoming): vs. Minnesota
Oct 29: @ Nebraska
Nov. 5: vs Michigan State
Nov. 12: vs Purdue
Nov. 19: @ Michigan
Nov. 26: @ Nern

So there’s a Friday and a Thursday game in here, which is pretty strange. Indiana ought to be an interesting game. Sucks that it’s on a Friday or I’d probably be there. This is just not a great schedule. Nern and Indiana should be tossups, Nebraska is a complete unknown, and I’d expect every other Big Ten team to have a clear advantage on us.

At the end of the day, what I’m seeing here is 2022 looking a lot like most Illini football seasons I can remember: you’re not watching for this season, but for some future season, maybe as near as next year but probably the year after that.

Stay tuned for more on that idea.