It is time for the 2022 Wisconsin Badgers football season preview extravaganza to begin! Over the next (almost) two months we will be preparing you for the upcoming football season. We’ve got previews of every team on Wisconsin’s schedule, we’ve got positional breakdowns of each group at UW, we’ll have predictions for the full conference, rankings of the top units in the Big Ten as well as a couple of larger features that we think are interesting.
Next up we take a look at the Illinois Fighting Illini!
Team: Illinois Fighting Illini
Head coach: Brett Bielema, second season, 5-7
2021 record: 5-7, 4-5 Big Ten Conference
Game info: Saturday, October 1st, TBD, Camp Randall Stadium
Top returning players
- Junior, RB Chase Brown, 170 carries for 1,005 yards (5.9 ypc), five touchdowns
- Sophomore, WR Isaiah Williams, 47 receptions for 525 yards (11.2 ypc), four touchdowns
- Senior, S Sydney Brown, 81 total tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles
- Senior, RG Alex Palczewski, 52 career starts at Illinois
- QB Tommy Devito, transfer from Syracuse, Devito entered the transfer portal at mid-season last year after losing the starting job, has 3,866 career passing yards
- ILB Calvin Hart, Jr, is not technically a newcomer but may as well be, playing in only one game last season for Illinois after transferring in from NC State where he showed flashes of promise
- ATH Aidan Laughery, the top-ranked recruit in the 2022 class out of Gibson City, Ill.
Top newcomers from Wisconsin!
- Freshman 3-star OL Joey Okla, Hartland, WI
2021 season review
Last year Illinois got the college football season started with a thrilling win over Nebraska in Week 0. It appeared Bret Bielema and company had something that just might work and excitement was high. However, things quickly crashed back down to earth as the Illini dropped four straight games to UTSA, Virginia, Maryland and Purdue. The following week they picked up a win over Charlotte but then were blanked 24-0 against Wisconsin.
Sitting at 2-5 the Illini traveled to Penn State for what looked like another defeat as the Nittany Lions started hot coming into the contest 5-1 and ranked No. 7 in the nation. However, Illinois found some magic in the run game and the defense showed some ability which ledto a thrilling (Editor’s note: ????) nine-overtime win over the Nittany Lions.
The victory over Penn State was a huge moment for Illinois football, but it created a sort of zig-zag point in the season for the Illini. After the Penn State victory, Illinois hosted Rutgers, losers of four straight, and dropped a clunker 20-14. The following week Illinois zagged back though, as they picked up a 14-6 win over Minnesota. The week after Illinois traveled to Kinnick where they lost to Iowa but kept the game tight throughout. To finish the season Illinois drubbed rival Northwestern 47-14. At 5-7 overall, with a losing Big Ten record, the Illini did not qualify for a bowl game.
Key stat: Illinois posted the 122nd worst passing offense in the country last year, averaging a 32.4% passer efficiency rating (the national average is 50.7%)
2022 season preview
Illinois’ season was likely not what the fans wanted to see, especially early, but finishing 5-7 after losing five of seven is a solid ending for a program rebuilding once again. It seems that Bielema and Co. now have an identity, which is something the program had not had in years. Now entering year two, Bielema has made some changes to try and build on the momentum accumulated down the stretch last season.
Bielema did make a change at offensive coordinator as Barry Lunney Jr. came over from UTSA. Lunney worked under Bielema during his time at Arkansas and knows that a run-heavy identity is part of the Illinois culture build.
The rushing attack, however, was not the issue for Illinois a season ago. Once again, inept quarterback play hindered the Illinois attack. They finished the season No. 122 in passing offense, and No. 112 in total offense, with the run game ranking No. 55 in the nation. If Illinois wants to make improvements it’ll need to come from there. To do so, Illinois brought in former Syracuse quarterback Tommy Devito. Devito had a solid career at Syracuse and if he can return to 2019 form should be a nice improvement for the Illini.
He’ll have some talent to throw to on the outside as Isiah Williams returns as the leading receiver for Illinois last year. The team's number two pass catcher Casey Washington also returns, as does tight end Luke Ford who showed flashes last year and is hoping for a big senior season.
The run game was one positive for Illinois but the defense was another. Lovie Smith’s squad struggled in his final season at Illinois but the Illini jumped from No. 114 to No. 46 in total defense from 2020 to 2021. With six starters back, a few at each level, the Illinois defense should be as solid as it was a year ago, if not better, in the second year of Ryan Walter’s system.
Illinois seemed to find an identity last season which is what they desperately needed. It appears Bielema has some foundational pieces to work with by running the ball and playing solid defense, but they’ll need better quarterback play to win consistently. If Devito can come in and improve that phase of the game this team could get back to bowling. The schedule isn’t easy with Wyoming and Virginia in the non-conference and Michigan and Michigan State as two of their divisional crossover games, but a bowl game should be the goal for Illinois this year.