THREE BIG STORYLINES
No doubt top target
Illinois did away with any pretense during last Saturday’s 37-30 home loss against Texas San Antonio. If Art Sitkowski is going to throw the ball, he’s going to look to Isaiah Williams first. (And then he’s going to look again and again and again). Williams was targeted 18 times against the Roadrunners and caught eight passes for 101 yards. All three were career highs for the quarterback-turned-wide receiver, who made the switch to his new position at the tail end of spring practices and wants to excel in his new role.
“There’s still more progress to be made,” Williams said. “I didn’t switch to be average. I want to be great. ... I just want to show I can be a complete receiver. I can run routes. I can catch the ball. I’m not just a gadget-type guy. As the season goes on, that’s just something I want to show more and more. I’m not a gadget. I’m a receiver, and I can make big plays.”
A different kind of back
The intention throughout the week leading into the game against UTSA was to involve true freshman running back Joshua McCray in the run game. The Enterprise, Ala., native didn’t play in Week 0 against Nebraska, but with both Chase Brown and Chase Hayden unavailable, the opportunity to play against UTSA developed. And McCray gave the Illini a different look in the backfield at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds.
“He’s a guy you could put in the game and say, ‘We could ride you a little bit,’” Illinois running backs coach Cory Patterson said. “I like how he attacked it. He attacked the opportunity. He had a small menu of stuff to do, and he was just ready to go. Since then, he’s been coming in and making sure he’s watching more film and doing extra and making sure he’s learning things. He’s a guy that really wants to play college football — and wants to play now.”
Illinois turned to James McCourt three times against UTSA. And three times, the sixth-year kicker delivered. McCourt drilled field goals from 52, 53 and 32 yards, with the first two pushing him past former teammate Chase McLaughlin for most career 50-plus yard field goals in program history with. That success has McCourt brimming with confidence, as he trails only Oklahoma’s Gabe Brkic for made 50-yard field goals so far this season.
“Not really as hard as I can, but with a confident stroke,” McCourt said was his approach on any field goal — 50-yarder or not. “It’s all about trusting the process and trusting your routine that you do every day and then just going out there and really attacking the ball. Trust your swing. Trust your technique. Don’t overthink it. That’s how I kind of approach it and then just trust (long snapper Ethan Tabel) and (holder Blake Hayes).”
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Illinois run game vs. Virginia run defense
The Illini still won’t have their full complement of running backs available against the Cavaliers. Chase Brown is expected back, but Mike Epstein won’t play. That could be a problem. Illinois rushed 35 times for 150 yards against UTSA after totaling 167 yards on 48 carries against Nebraska. An average showing that could get bottled up even more against a Virginia run defense that ranked No. 36 nationally last season and held William & Mary to 94 yards on 37 carries last week.
Illinois defense vs. Virginia’s stable of “football players”
“Football players” is Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall’s catch-all phrase for the Cavaliers’ collection of backup quarterbacks that essentially run Wildcat-style plays to boost the run game. Virginia used three of them — Iraken Armstead, Keytaon Thompson and Jacob Rodriguez — effectively in the season opener, as they combined for 133 yards on 13 carries. The Illini have been burned by dual-threat quarterbacks this season between Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez breaking a 75-yard TD run and UTSA’s Frank Harris quick hitters.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
Illinois hasn’t played a Power Five opponent in the nonconference portion of the season since 2016 — a home loss to North Carolina in the last sellout at Memorial Stadium. The Illini’s record in those games the last 20 years is less than ideal. Just five wins in 22 opportunities dating back to the 2001 Big Ten championship/Sugar Bowl appearance season. That includes one apiece against Syracuse and Rutgers when they were both in the Big East and a win against Louisville when it was in Conference USA. There’s also six losses to Missouri thrown in there for good measure. A potential win Saturday at Virginia would snap a five-game losing streak to nonconference Power Five opponents dating back to a 2011 home win against Arizona State.
ILLINOIS WILL WIN IF …
... it can flip the script from last week’s loss to UTSA in nearly every facet of the game and tap into some of what it did well against Nebraska. That means containing Virginia’s offensive weapons much better and getting back to the defense that got considerable pressure in the Nebraska backfield. And as much as James McCourt pulled his weight in the UTSA loss with three made field goals, the Illinois offense has to covert when its in the red zone or at least red zone adjacent.
VIRGINIA WILL WIN IF …
... the 43-0 blowout it posted in Week 1 against William & Mary wasn’t just a product of playing an FCS opponent. There’s no discounting the uneven matchup for the lopsided score, but the Cavaliers can remain successful in their first true test of the season if the basic tenets of that season-opening win hold true. Stingy defense just as effective against the run and pass. And dynamic offense that puts its playmakers in positions to succeed with an efficient quarterback running the show.
Virginia 38, Illinois 24
An Illinois win in Charlottesville, Va., would be notable. Namely because it would be the first for the Illini as a program on the road against a Power Five program in two decades. The 2001 team was the last to do it, winning 44-17 at California. The odds aren’t in the Illini’s favor to snap that streak. Literally. Virginia is a 10-point favorite at home, and the Cavaliers will have plenty of momentum at Scott Stadium after a blowout win in their opener. Illinois will have considerably less after losing at home to UTSA.