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Wisconsin football: how you doing...Illinois

A look at the 2021 Illinois football team so far this season.

NCAA Football: Charlotte at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Our “how you doing” feature is back for year three! Each week we at B5Q will review how each of Wisconsin’s opponents has fared heading into their contest with the Badgers.

Following another crushing loss on Saturday, the Wisconsin Badgers (1-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) will look to get back on track against the Illinois Fighting Illini (2-4 overall, 1-2 Big Ten). The Fighting Berts have played better football so far this season under new leadership, and have already played six contests.

Let’s begin by taking a look at how the season has gone to this point for Illinois...

  • Win vs. Nebraska 30-22
  • Loss vs. UTSA 37-30
  • Loss at Virginia 42-14
  • Loss vs. Maryland 20-17
  • Loss at Purdue 13-9
  • Win vs. Charlotte 24-14

Status of the offense:

As a team, Illinois is averaging a shade over 20 points and roughly 355 yards per game this season. Neither the passing game nor running game has been overly dominant, but the Illini do feature a balanced attack. The running game has had a few more opportunities this season based on attempts but on a per-game basis, yardage totals are almost 50-50 with the passing game.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Illinois
Freshman Josh McCray is one of the main running backs to watch for Illinois.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Like Bret Bielema teams of old, the Fighting Illini like to establish the run to set up play-action pass behind a fairly good offensive line. Quarterback Brandon Peters has taken the majority of reps the past three weeks, but backup Art Sitkowski has also played in three games this season. Sitkowski has produced better stats this year, but Peters is the expected starter this weekend. To date, Peters is completing under 50% of his throws and has only thrown for one touchdown compared to one interception in his four games.

In the running game, Illinois has spread carries around through six games. Chase Brown had a huge game last week against Charlotte with 257 yards on 26 carries, but freshman Josh McCray and former Wisconsin target Reggie Love have also received plenty of carries this season. All three backs bring something a bit different to the backfield, and Bielema has tended to ride the hot hand each game this season.

The offensive line is experienced and has done a solid job this year up front. So far they have allowed 14 sacks, but Illinois has also been able to move the ball on the ground in each game this year.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Purdue
Isaiah Williams is used all over the field for the Illini.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Out wide, Illinois has a couple of primary playmakers to watch out for. Isaiah Williams (No. 1 in the above photo) is an extremely shifty and very talented slot receiver. He leads the team in receptions by a wide margin with 28, as Illinois likes to get him the ball often. He has not broken off any big plays as of late, but he is the most dynamic player on the offense.

Outside of Williams, Illinois has several bigger targets like Casey Washington (6-foot-2 WR), Daniel Barket (6-foot-4 tight end), and Deuce Span (6-foot-4 WR) that they like to get involved as well.

Status of the defense:

Defensively, Illinois has averaged 24 points per game allowed this year. Do it all linebacker Jake Hansen has missed the past two games with an injury, but this defense has kept them in games all year long excluding a bad performance against Virginia.

Given Wisconsin’s struggles along the offensive line, the player to watch is Owen Carney. He has come on the past three games, adding 4.5 sacks in that time. He is a big disruptive edge player that earned All-Big Ten honors last season and is on pace for similar results this year.

Illinois v Virginia
Owen Carney has played really well the past three games for Illinois.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Through six games the defense has created nine turnovers and has only allowed a little over 18 points per game in Big Ten play.

In terms of statistical leaders, defensive backs Sydney Brown and Jartavius Martin lead the team in tackles with 36 and 35 respectively, while fellow defensive back Kerby Joseph has a team-high two interceptions.

It is will be important to monitor the injury status of Hansen and defensive back Devon Witherspoon. If either of them returns it would give a big boost to the Illinois defense.


I would imagine that Bielema will have his team fired up for this game. Wisconsin dropped an ugly game at Champaign back in 2019, and will once again be tested this year. Illinois likes to suck the air out of the ball and control the time of possession, so Wisconsin’s offense will need to finish drives when they have the chance.

Illinois had a huge win over Nebraska to kick off their season in Week 0 but has since dropped a couple of close games in the conference. I expect a low-scoring contest, but I believe Bielema will pull out all the stops against his former team. This is a better Illinois team than the version Wisconsin blew out in 2020, and I think this is a must-win for the Badgers if they want to make a bowl and salvage their season.