The likelihood of another L-O-N-G Illini football season occurred during Saturday’s airborne thrashing on the Grounds of Virginia.
The Master Plan, you see, was for dozens of Illinois seniors — nearly 40 counting both classes — to hold the fort, and keep fans and recruits upbeat ahead of Bret Bielema’s long-term program restructuring.
But the Cavaliers’ explosive, 423-yard passing attack sent the visitors reeling 14-0 in the first five minutes, and Illinois made only a few legitimate counterattacks throughout a 42-14 setback. This wasn’t Clemson, the ACC’s ruling powerhouse. This was a Virginia team ranked fifth in the league’s Coastal Division, but looking considerably better. They struck early and often, didn’t allow a sack in launching 40 passes (28 complete) and made nine behind-the-line tackles in limiting Illinois to 116 yards rushing.
Cavaliers dominate in all aspectsWhy is it, you must be wondering, that every opposing quarterback for years has resembled an all-star?
Or maybe it just seems that way.
The Cavaliers’ Brennan Armstrong set the tone on a perfect 75-degree day with opening touchdown passes of 32 yards to tight end Jelani Woods and 28 yards to receiver Dontayvion Wicks. Armstrong went on to complete 27 of 36 to nine receivers for 405 yards, accounting for five touchdowns prior to leaving midway in the fourth quarter.
The Illinois pass defense, which has been a long-time concern, had no answer for his chunk strikes, with one notable exception. When 6-foot-4 senior Keytaon Thompson soared high to grasp a 30-yard pass in the third quarter, Illini Kerby Joseph reached in and stole the ball as they tumbled on the 1-yard line. It was the UI’s only interception thus far amid a 1-2 start to the season.
It rivaled three other special plays by the Illini Saturday.
➜ Deuce Spann made a superb end-zone reception from Art Sitkowski, the 33-yarder marking his third catch in three games, all for more than 30 yards. Sitkowski was 24 for 45 on the day for 221 yards.
➜ Linebacker Jake Hansen twice ripped the ball free, recovering the second one in the third quarter.
➜ The offensive line, which included Danville’s Julian Pearl at guard, cleared a path for Chase Brown’s 21-yard touchdown sweep to start the third quarter. But Illinois offensive line blocking was a distant second to Virginia’s work in protecting Armstrong, as he often threw without distress.
Mistakes aplenty for IlliniSo here we are, trying to locate positives from a game in which Illinois allowed 556 total yards and 42 points (despite two easy field goal misses).
That’s 101 points allowed in three games, and right in line with a defense that, after Vic Koenning’s unit permitted 19.6 points in 2011, shows a 10-year run of giving up 32 points per game. At the same time, a rushing attack that flashed positive signs in the win against Nebraska has been shut down by Texas San Antonio and Virginia.
Worse yet, the Illini reverted to form in the fourth quarter, practically handing Virginia its final touchdown with four major penalties (one declined), and nullifying a Jartavius Martin interception.
This is a circumstance that Bielema will certainly address as the Illini prepare for Friday night’s home game with Maryland and former Illini coaches Michael Locksley and Ron Zook.
It has to be. Or it’ll be a long night.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.