CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema’s second Illinois football squad reported on Saturday. Now, let’s talk some football ...
➜ A second straight “Week 0” opener (against Wyoming on Aug. 27 in Champaign) was favored by Bielema and carried through by Illini athletic director Josh Whitman. Bielema theorizes that teams tend to make their most improvement after the first game, although, in this case, Indiana’s new coordinators will capture a full game report on Illini formations while keeping their own a deep, dark secret for the Hoosiers’ home opener on Sept. 2 (Bielema’s first Friday night game as a coach).
➜ The friendly confines haven’t provided much of an advantage at Memorial Stadium, the Illini having won just eight Big Ten games in 40 tries before the 47-14 lambasting of Northwestern in the 2021 season finale. If my trusted source is on target, fans have become jaded with a mere 11,000 actually attending (27,624 announced) the last game on a clear late November day with temperatures in the 40s. The Illini will be tested this fall as all four Big Ten home opponents are riding highs: Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State and Purdue combined for 39 victories last season.
➜ Illinois has had two multi-year 1,000-yard rushers in history (Jim Grabowski in back-to-back seasons in 1964 and 1965) and Robert Holcombe (three straight seasons from 1995 through 1997). That’s the reachable goal for junior Chase Brown after he went for 1,005 last year. The 205-pounder will share time with 235-pound Josh McCray. All those two need is a passing game to keep defenses from overloading.
Movers and shakersIf some fans — here and out East — still question Maryland and Rutgers in the Big Ten, consider: All recent additions were made for different reasons.
Stan Ikenberry, former UI president who orchestrated the Penn State move to the Big Ten three decades ago, pointed to the academic component combined with Penn State’s football brand. Nebraska was simply a football decision.
Maryland and Rutgers were brought in as a Penn State partner and to build an eastern TV market, even if few New Yorkers, as example, tuned in to Rutgers or visited Piscataway, N.J.
Now comes Southern California and UCLA to complete the coast-to-coast positioning and attract a fourth late-night TV audience. This is about Los Angeles and money.
➜ Look for Connor Bazelak, who passed for 2,366 and 2,548 yards the last two seasons at Missouri, to open at quarterback for the Hoosiers. He’s one of 13 portal pickups. Former Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who starred when a 6-2 team beat Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State in 2020, transferred to Washington, and another Indiana signal caller, Donaven McCulley, is being tested at receiver.
➜ Ryan Walters speaks so softly that 90-year-old ears sometimes strain, but he carries a big stick. Question is: Will the Illini defensive coordinator locate key replacements in an Illini unit that permitted just 18 points per game through the last nine? Three of the five up-front positions require new starters.
“There’s no more feel-out process,” Walters said. “It’s our second year, and we know what to expect.”
➜ In the past 27 years, Illinois has had one team hold opponents under 300 yards per game, and new coach Tim Beckman didn’t retain the coordinator (Vic Koenning, who headed the 2011 bowl win over UCLA) prior to the start of the 2012 season. Overall, last year’s “D” permitted 365.5 yards per game, better than any of Lovie Smith’s five seasons.
➜ Fifth-year Floridian Quan Martin is both versatile and athletic. A starter at safety alongside Sydney Brown, he’ll move to the critical nickel position when, as often happens, the Illini employ five defensive backs. Remarkably, the UI’s last six Big Ten opponents averaged just 138 yards passing.
Notable names, places➜ Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong is an aerial circus, throwing for 4,449 yards last season. But he did not lead the nation in passing. He was fourth. Imagine what the other three guys did. Armstrong will lead the Cavaliers here Sept. 10 after passing for 405 yards in last year’s 42-14 rout of Illinois, one week before his 554-yard aerial explosion in a loss to North Carolina.
➜ Look out for tight end Daniel Barker, one of 10 transfers at Michigan State. As an Illini, he had 18 receptions last year and four touchdowns, but was disappointed he wasn’t targeted more (a common complaint of Illini tight ends). The Spartans have a soft schedule early, but may be taxed Nov. 5 at Illinois, having just played Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan in order.
➜ Michigan, hosting the Illini for just the third time in the last 10 years (those two competed every year from 1924 through 1996), defeated Ohio State 42-27 and won the Big Ten last year. But they also had some toughies, edging Rutgers 20-13, Nebraska 32-29 and Penn State 21-17, and falling to Michigan State 37-33 and Georgia 34-11 in the College Football Playoff.
➜ As an aside, it’s impossible to watch Jim Harbaugh without wondering what he’s actually thinking. He is, in a word, different. But the Michigan coach made sense when he announced his four goals, which end with the national championship because “that’s the dream that drives top recruits.”
Three and outThe nation will set aside Saturday night, Sept. 3, for Notre Dame’s invasion of Ohio State. Lowest ticket price in Columbus is $244. The Buckeyes will be the 25th Big Ten team to play the Irish since 2010 (none in the pandemic season of 2020). Regular Pac-12 foes Stanford and USC are on the Notre Dame slate, as well as Cal this season.
➜ Most Illini onlookers assume Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito will start at quarterback against Wyoming because, in our one extended view of him, he looked sharp in the spring game. But Art Sitkowski, fresh from two offseason surgeries, will be ready. Arriving from Rutgers last year, he came off the bench to hit 12 of 15 passes in the opening win over Nebraska.
➜ While a 12-team football playoff was nearly implemented (for 2026 and beyond), featuring four on-campus games between the bottom eight, there is a different stream of thought developing. Commissioners are concerned about bowl relationships, and a 16-team playoff would allow eight bowls to host the first round.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.