CHAMPAIGN — See what happened.
Bret Bielema's Illini, last in passing among 14 Big Ten members, took the aerial route early on Saturday afternoon, and shattered Northwestern's six-game win streak in the season-ending series with a 47-14 win.
Senior Brandon Peters passed 'em silly. He shocked the Wildcats with a 25-yard strike to Isaiah Williams on the first play and kept pitching through a 37-point first half that featured 39- and 56-yard bombs to Casey Washington, additional 3-, 10-, 8- and 21-yarders to the fleet Williams, and 3-, 11- and 21-yard tosses to Daniel Barker. Peters threw for 215 yards in those 30 minutes.
The Wildcats, Big Ten West champs a year ago before falling to 3-9 this season, never knew what hit them. The 37 points were the most by Illinois in the first half of a Big Ten game in this abbreviated century, this by a team that has leaned heavily on its defense in three previous conference wins.
Picking them apart
Thus did the 5-7 Illini pinpoint the problem going forward. Bielema must find a replacement for Peters and the veteran linemen who let him operate out of a rocking chair at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
As you know, it hasn't always been so easy. In 11 games prior to Saturday, Illinois averaged just 17.7 points while completing a league-worst 50.5 percent of passes for a mere 1,632 yards (148.3 per game). Purdue, a nearby rival with comparable personnel, compiled 200 yards PER GAME more than Illinois prior to Saturday, which computes to 50 yards per quarter for an entire season.
Few coaches intend to throw as much as Purdue's Jeff Brohm, of course. But it is critical to at least balance the attack with some degree of aerial success ... something better than dead last in the conference.
In fact, if Peters hadn't caught fire — 14 of 24 for 242 yards with just one completion in the last 21 minutes of a grind-it-out conclusion — Illinois would have finished under 150 yards per game for only the second time since Mike White replaced Gary Moeller in 1979 ... 42 years ago.
Hope for the future?
Passing is emphasized today because this phase is so vital going forward. The defense has already made a giant leap (permitting about 19 points per game in the conference). And Bielema stated that he has only two hard-to-replace members on that unit, ends Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay (although cornerback Tony Adams and nose guard Rod Perry were also regulars).
This has the look of a crack unit comparable to Iowa and Wisconsin in 2022, the kind that keeps the games close. And the running game has a 1,000-yard returnee in Chase Brown, and solid backups.
Rounding out the offense falls to budding line prospects on the squad and Bielema's ability to attract a quarterback and mature blockers from the transfer portal.
As you can see in scanning results everywhere — and weren't Saturday's results stunning! — it takes a great deal more than the 11-game average of 17.7 points by Illinois to challenge the leaders. No one expects Illinois to catch Purdue in the aerial game, but it needs to be better than what we saw in 2021 ... until the first half Saturday.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com