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Speak Your Truth: Illinois Q&A

We’ve got a pair of pals from The Champaign Room here to discuss the Illini.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers (1-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) limp into Champaign, Ill. to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini (2-4 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) on Saturday afternoon. This is UW’s first true road game of the year and, much like the last time the Badgers were here which we don’t talk about, it is homecoming for the Illini.

New Illini head coach Bret Bielema is a familiar face and it sounds like he’s trying to install a similar mindset at Illinois as the one that Wisconsin has.

This week, we have two guests to talk Illinois football. Both gentlemen come to us from The Champaign Room so let’s welcome back Steve Braun aka thumpasaurus1 who previewed the Illini for us this offseason and let’s welcome, for the first time, Mihir Chavan. Here are their answers to our questions!

The Bret Bielema Era started off with a bang but things have kinda cooled off since the Week 0 victory over Nebraska. How do Illini fans like Bielema? What are the overall feelings around the team heading into the heart of Big Ten play?

Mihir Chavan: Personally I am happy with they way the season is going. From the top down, you can see where the defensive and offensive schemes work and are improving (outside of the big glaring elephant in the room). But at 2-4 with three one possessions losses in winnable games, there is a lot of animosity among the general population. It’s the whole “oh shit here we go again” thing going on.

Outside of the Charlotte game, the student section has been full, there is a general excitement with the program. I’ve only been able to see media coverage and threads on social media and nobody has high expectations this year and so we are meeting those expectations.

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

Steve Braun: This is a complicated question. I was vehemently against the hire from the beginning, but Bielema said and did a lot of the things you’d expect a Big Ten coach to say and do, and by the time the season rolled around he’d won me over. The new helmet is nice and looks way more timeless; I think Bielema wants Illinois to have a recognizable identity, which I also want. The Nebraska win was fantastic, especially since it seemed to indicate very sound coaching and good fundamentals.

Things slowly went off the rails, and after being completely unprepared to an inexcusable degree against Virginia, Bielema showed his ass two weeks in a row by refusing to go for it with a late lead in enemy territory on fourth and short. In both cases, the opponent responded by scoring a touchdown that ended Illinois’ lead for the day.

That Bielema did this twice in a row and then doubled down in his postgame presser was really heartbreaking for Illini fans, because the fact of the matter is that he didn’t get that strong of an initial recruiting push. He’s gonna need to win early to get recruiting where it needs to be. That means not pissing away opportunities to win conference games. Illinois doesn’t win conference games often, so to have two in a row be right there for the taking only to fail after the coach played not to lose is really bleak.

The Charlotte win means Illinois won’t fire Bert before 2023, so now the short play is out. DC Ryan Walters has done a good job of game planning lately and has shown that he can learn from what goes wrong in our games. Bielema and OC Tony Petersen haven’t shown that as much, especially Petersen.

This is a shame, because the rest of Illinois’ schedule is more difficult than the first half. Bert needs to win at least one more game this year, maybe even two to make up for the ones he lost. Next year, the whole offensive line graduates.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Long story short, jury’s still out. Love what he did with the gray uniforms though. (Editor’s note: the Illini won’t be wearing the gray uniforms on Saturday.)

Who will Wisconsin’s defense be facing at quarterback, Brandon Peters or Art Sitkowski? Who would you start if you were head coach?

Mihir: All the signs point to Brandon Peters. Everybody on the staff is trying to up the guy’s confidence. But after six different OC’s, Peters is not only confused with his reads but also the guy is clearly spooked. The line hasn’t held up as well as we want and Peters is clearly rushing through his reads and missing open receivers.

At this point, both Sitkowski and Peters have played three games. Art is the clear statistical leader but has is flaws and is less accurate than BP. This is a tough one, but as I mentioned in my mid season review, it is time to #StartArt. But that comes with a downside, BP’s confidence will be completely shot if he is benched. This is a one way street.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Virginia
Sitkowski (pictured here) or Peters? That is the question for the Illini under center.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Steve: It’s going to be Brandon Peters. If his final drives against Maryland and Purdue didn’t convince the coaches to give Sitkowski or Northern Michigan transfer Ryan Johnson a look, a putrid performance against Charlotte that didn’t turn the ball over won’t do it. He had one touchdown in that game, but it should have been picked off because he threw it right into coverage. Daniel Barker made an extremely athletic play to win the ball. Peters had 78 yards passing and was at one point 1-of-5 for nine yards.

I’d start Sitkowski and if Wisconsin continues to stack the box without him punishing them once, I’d have a quick hook and look to the Northern Michigan guy for a series or two just to see if maybe he has better pocket presence and less fear of throwing over the middle than our two 4-star prospects. But I’d also have given Josh McCray the ball on 4th and a short 2 against Purdue, so it’ll be all Peters all the time.

The Illini running game has been churning out yards at a solid clip this season. What does freshman Joshua McCray bring to the table that was missing from last year’s rushing attack?

Mihir: Wisconsin knows this type of running back. He is the prototypical Bielema Back. Chase Brown can cut it to the outside and is great out of the pistol and shotgun due to his ability to quickly get up to speed. McCray is a freight train and is great out of the single set back and needs room to get up to speed. But when he hits the gap, he’s hard to take down. Think of this backfield like the John Clay/Montee Ball backfield from Wisconsin 2009 team, also coached by Bret Bielema.

Illinois v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Steve: McCray simply gives Illinois power they’ve not had since Dre Brown. This offsets a little bit of the loss of Kendrick Green, but obviously not all of it. McCray has been a revelation, though he wasn’t especially effective against Charlotte. Then again, Chase Brown was so good that McCray stopped getting carries. But it was McCray who stepped up against Maryland as the first back to get any yards after contact. That’s what he’s brought to this game; a between-the-tackles bulldozer.

Wisconsin’s offensive line has struggled this year, like, a lot. How have the Illini been in stopping the run and rushing the passer because, well, their number will probably improve after playing the Badgers.

Mihir: The difference between this team and Lovie’s team? We can tackle now. This team has the ability to keep the game in front of them, get to the ball and make the tackle. We are more aggressive and love to play with contact. Wisconsin will still be able to move the ball against us because the secondary is atrocious. Within 10 yards, the systems works, outside of that, we are awful. I think the real question is can Graham Mertz throw the ball as well as he did last year against us. If that happens again, not sure that the run defense matters.

Steve: The Illini started the Virginia game with the worst first-quarter defensive performance I have ever seen out of an Illini defense. However, I think DC Ryan Walters has learned a bit more about his personnel and how to succeed with them. Owen Carney has shown some ability to disrupt the offensive line from the DE position, and Roderick Perry holds his own in the middle. The secondary has also been more focused on keeping the play in front of them, which has limited the explosiveness of offenses like Purdue and Maryland. Kerby Joseph has made massive strides as a DB, coming up with a key interception in the end zone against Purdue.

Nebraska v Illinois
Kerby Joseph sticking it to Nebraska
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Where the Illini defense has excelled has been in the red zone, which is where Wisconsin has struggled. The defense is by no means perfect and has been maddeningly inconsistent, but at least the coaches genuinely seem to be learning and making adjustments that suit the personnel and the situation better.

The best rushing attack the Illini faced was either UTSA, who then beat the Illini with passing, or Nebraska, who gifted the Illini the difference-making points with a safety and a defensive touchdown. They haven’t faced a power-oriented offense like Wisconsin’s yet, and while they may be able to bottle it up, Wisconsin might be able to use play action pretty effectively.

Alright, let’s get a score prediction from you and maybe one under-the-radar Illini player who will make a difference in the game.

Mihir: So gotta start it off by saying that I have friends and family that went to Wisconsin, including my better half. So this is a big game for the household, even bigger that it’s Bielema’s first game against the Badgers. I know y’all’s animosity against the guy and he has been a punch line for at least one Wisconsin wedding speech.

That being said, this game won’t be a blowout. Illinois defense should keep the Badgers in check. The offense depends on if BP will come out to play ball. The under-the-radar player I think will make an impact is Julian Pearl, who was the the PFF ranked No. 1 Run Blocking Guard after the Purdue game. Illinois competes, wins ATS, but loses 21-19.

Steve: I think Wisconsin Illinois loses 17-3 and nobody’s really happy at any point. Wisconsin will gain some yards but stall out past the 50. Illinois will shorten the game by running a lot regardless of how effective it is. This will be a battle for field position, with Blake Hayes making up for the offense’s terrible matchup with a great Badger D.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Charlotte at Illinois
Big No. 88 making plays in the passing game!
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sleeper impact player? I don’t want to say Isaiah Williams because it keeps looking like they’re trying more and more to get him involved, but the plays they draw up just aren’t working. Blake Hayes is the best player on the field, so I can’t say him. James McCourt would have to be a factor for Illinois to win, but I don’t know if he’ll get enough chances. Let’s say it’s Keith Randolph at defensive end. He had a pick last week. Think he can house one?