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Friends of the Blog: Illinois Q&A

Steve and Stephen from The Champaign Room drop by to talk Bielema and the Illini

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 07 Minnesota at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Right in the middle of the season, the Wisconsin Badgers return to the scene of one of their most embarrassing losses in decades...Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Illinois has a new coach (Bret Bielema, ever heard of him?) and will presumably have another loud stadium as it will be homecoming weekend for the Illini.

Will this game look like the 2019 disaster for Wisconsin or will the 2020 version of Badgers/Illini, where Graham Mertz was basically perfect, unfold again?

To get part of the answer we have enlisted the help of our pal Steve Braun (@thumpasaurus1) who is a writer for The Champaign Room and Off Tackle Empire. He is the Official Toast Master of Big Illini Wins as well.

Here are his answers to our four questions!

Who is your player to watch on offense?

You’re Wisconsin fans, so the player to watch is No. 79, Vederian Lowe. Our best offensive lineman (Kendrick Green) is off to Pittsburgh to replace Maurkice Pouncey at center, so Lowe is the standard-bearer for this group. This will be his fifth year starting at left tackle, and with Illinois finally lining up under center more and presumably doing less RPO, we can finally see what the big man can do without the Ineligible Vederian Lowe Downfield penalty pushing him back every drive.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 19 Orange and Blue Spring Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Lowe is a very complete tackle with a big frame, a good pass blocker and a real asset to an offense that pulls interior linemen often with his ability to pin 3-tech DT’s inside. He’s not as explosive a road grader as Green, but a recent injury to presumed starter Jordyn Slaughter may open up a spot at starting guard for Green’s fellow converted DT Verdis Brown. I’d like to see Brown win the job given that the most recent roster lists him at 345 lbs.

Yeah, that’s right. I know all the right things to say to get you Wisconsin fans all frisky.

If you MUST have a skill guy, TE Daniel Barker could see an expanded role given that our coach is now Bret Bielema. He draws a personal foul on more than half his touchdowns. He’s delightful.

Who is your player to watch on defense?

There are some guys that might surprise you, like DBs Eddie Smith and Prather Hudson who have transferred from Alabama and Georgia respectively. The two corners from the 2019 game when Paul Chryst decided not to game plan for Lovie’s shitty base 4-3 are back. One’s Tony Adams, who you know from the interception. The other is Devon Witherspoon, who you probably forgot about from a shoestring touchdown-saving tackle. (Editor’s note: thanks I hate this entire paragraph.)

But the guy most likely to make the play that makes you finish your drink is inside linebacker Jake Hansen, who has returned for yet another senior year. I can’t stress enough how much Lovie Smith’s defense was designed to embarrass his linebackers on passing plays. I’m so excited for the possibility that someone’s going to actually take into account the personnel that the offense has on the field when they’re calling the defense.

Being able to put Hansen in position to disrupt the running game will have huge benefits because no player in college football has stolen the ball from the offense more over the last two seasons than him. Get a pass tipped and he’s looking for it. If you get wrapped up, you’d better go down fast because he’s looking to punch it out. Every Jake Hansen tackle is an opportunity, and there will be many.

Also he forced two fumbles in the 2019 game.

Why will Illinois beat Wisconsin this year?

I gotta be perfectly honest, I’m going to be in Champaign for homecoming (which is, as always, against Wisconsin) and I’m not gonna go to the game. We’re gonna come out in gray and lose badly because Paul Chryst, or any coach for that matter, would have a hard time sleepwalking through a conference game as hard as he did two years ago. Seriously. Dude got outcoached by Lovie Smith, a man terminally allergic to doing a goddamn thing to adjust his defense.

BUT. If there are to be a couple of X-factors...

(a) Our new coach has made a big point of being from Illinois and valuing Illinois’ history and wanting to restore the good parts, and so maybe we come out actually wearing orange and blue and get the crowd into it for once.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

(b) Our new coach is Bret Bielema. I don’t believe he’s the smartest man, or the hardest-working, but he is so petty he makes Richard Petty look like Kyle Petty. If there’s one thing that will motivate Bert to stay sober long enough to field a competitive Illinois team, it’s the desire to spit in his hand before a victorious postgame handshake with the Wisconsin and Iowa coaching staffs. I don’t know what edge his background in Madison will give him, but if there is one, he’ll actually go all weekend without drinking to find it.

God, isn’t Purdue just the worst?

Purdue’s Purdue. They’re fun to watch. I want the cannon back, but their mascot is an actual steam locomotive, which I respect a great deal. Nah, you know who’s the worst? Northwestern. I’ll tell you why.

Was their 2019 team really that different from their 2018 and 2020 teams? The quarterback play was worse, but at Northwestern these days you just kind of game manage. 2019’s only difference was more mistakes made by QB’s, which slightly weighted the coin flip that is every Northwestern game not against Ohio State or Illinois such that it came up with a loss more often than a win. Every Northwestern game is decided by something stupid someone does in the fourth quarter, whether the opponent is Rutgers, Nebraska, Wisconsin or any other red and white Big Ten team or anyone else for that matter.

Except Ohio State and Illinois, which of course are pretty much the same thing.

Our second guest is Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) who is a senior editor at The Champaign Room and, in his real life, is a producer and intern coordinator for the CBS affiliate in Madison! If you ever see someone dressed head to toe in Illini gear on State Street, it’s a good bet that you’ve just seen Stephen. He played in the band at Illinois and likes ribs...besides the Illini stuff he seems alright to me.

Here are his answers to our questions!

Who is your player to watch on offense?

The easy player to say y’all should watch on offense is Brandon Peters, since just about every other big-time playmaker moved on after last season. But we hyped Peters enough last year, so let’s go somewhere else and say QB-turned-WR Isaiah Williams.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 19 Orange and Blue Spring Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Once a four-star prospect out of the St. Louis area, Williams is going to be catching balls now instead of throwing them. Will it work? I’m not sure! Will he be on the outside? Absolutely not, he’s little. Will it be a fun experiment to watch? Hopefully! This team just needs some weapons, so hopefully this move works.

Who is your player to watch on defense?

DT Jamal Woods. He’s been in Champaign forever at this point, but the 6-foot-2, 275-pound fifth-year senior’s career has been riddled with injuries. But he’s finally fully healthy, and should be a focal point on the defensive front. Woods was a stud as a freshman, but has only played 17 games over the past three years. Like Williams on offense, this isn’t a sure thing! But it’s Illinois, when has it ever been a sure thing!?

Why will Illinois beat Wisconsin this year?

They probably won’t, but it’s fun to dream. If Graham Mertz plays like he did last year against the Illini, not a chance. If he plays like he did the rest of the season, the Illini get off to a hot start, and Bert want to get some revenge, then maybe it will happen!

God, isn’t Northwestern just the worst?

I don’t want to talk about it :(