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Illinois Football Struggles are No Surprise



Illinois Football Struggles are No Surprise
Sep 2, 2023; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema reacts after a play against the Toledo Rockets during the second half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois Football Struggles are No Surprise

This stinks. Illinois Football had built up quite the buzz last November. They were sitting at 7-1 in the midst of a 6 game winning streak. They sat atop the meek Big Ten West with a chance to win the conference. Finally, after a decade of rolling around in mediocrity, Illinois Football was back and ranked. Recruiting continued to build, and Bret Bielema gained traction that alums like me have only dreamed of. However, it has been rough sliding since then. Since that 7-1 record, the Illini have put up a 2-5 record. Most recently, they looked lost and sheepish on the national stage against Kansas. 

They are one prayer of a throw and catch by Luke Altmyer and Casey Washington from being 0-2 to start the season. Despite this, I am not surprised by any of this

Realize what we lost on Defense:

Everyone knows what we lost. Illinois lost a lot of talent, but also lost a ton of experience. In the list below, take note of how many of these meaningful contributors were experienced. On Defense:

  1. Devon Witherspoon
  2. Sydney Brown
  3. Quan Martin
  4. Kendall Smith (5th year)
  5. Isaac Darkangelo (5th year)
  6. Calvin Avery (5th year)

4 out of 6 of these guys are currently on NFL rosters. Additionally, Smith made plays in the NFL preseason, however did not make the final roster. We replaced this list with the one below

  1. Tyler Strain (Sophomore, first time playing extended snaps), and Taz Nicholson who is clearly struggling being the number 1 corner
  2. Matt Bailey (injured). Clayton Bush (first time at the high major level)
  3. Xavier Scott (True Sophomore)
  4. Miles Scott (former walk-on wide receiver)
  5. Dylan Rosiek (first time playing extended snaps)
  6. Denzel Daxon (first time playing extended snaps and on the high-major level).

Realize what we lost on Offense:

  1. Tommy Devito
  2. Chase Brown
  3. Alex Palczewski
  4. Brian Hightower
  5. Alex Pihlstrom

Again, 3 out of these 5 are on NFL rosters. We replaced this list with

  1. Luke Altmyer (doing great)
  2. Reggie Love and Josh McCray (unfortunately hard to tell given the early deficits we have faced)
  3. Josh Gesky (First time playing extended snaps)
  4. Pat Bryant and Casey Washington (this is literally their 4rd qb in 4 years)
  5. Josh Kreutz (first time playing extended snaps)


There is an insane amount of players at key positions that are being relied on for the first time. Additionally, these are some young players in general. Because of this, Illinois has found themselves in big holes early. This has led them into shootout games. This team is not built for shootouts, and need to find a way to start games better. Regardless, Illinois Football was going to have growing pains early on. Unfortunately, the timing and manner in which they are experiencing those pains are truly tough for a beaten down fanbase to handle.

I am confident that Illinois will find its footing later in the season. However, given their schedule, I am worried that it may lead to a mediocre season record. They have to grow up fast, otherwise the fanbase will quickly fall off again.


Analyzing the Odds: Illinois is a heavy favorite versus FAU



Illinois: Analyzing the Odds
Jan 2, 2023; Tampa, FL, USA; the Illinois Fighting Illini take the field fro the the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois are heavy favorites against Florida Atlantic.

After a home loss to #7 Penn State, the Illinois Fighting Illini look to rebound against American Athletic Conference foe Florida Atlantic. The Illini are looking for answers, especially on offense, before they get deep into Big Ten Conference play. The Owls might be the perfect opponent for Illinois to work some of the kinks out of their game.

Florida Atlantic starting quarterback Casey Thompson is out for the season with an injury, so the Owls turn to Central Michigan transfer Daniel Richardson. That is not a good omen for a team coming to play a defense that looks to be revitalized. Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph had their best game of the season against Penn State.

Saturday could be a day for the Illinois offense to get going. The Owls rank 95th in scoring defense and 71st in total defense. That makes them a heavy favorite on Saturday. The Illini need to take advantage and get things right before they begin conference play in earnest.

Illinois v. Florida Atlantic Betting Odds

  • Spread: Illinois -15.5, Florida Atlantic +15.5
  • Money Line: Illinois -715, Florida Atlantic +496
  • Over/Under: 45.5

Wagering on the Illini has been a risky proposition so far this season. Illinois is 0-3 in its last five games against the spread, and the point total has gone over in one of their previous two games. Those who wager on the Owls have not fared much better. The Owls are also 0-3 in their last five games against the spread. However, Florida Atlantic’s points totals have gone over in two of its last three games.

Can they win this game?

Not only should the Illini win this game, but they should also dominate. However, we’ve been here before this season. The line in the Toledo game opened at -10 for Illinois. The line in this game opened at 13 and has since expanded to 15.5, so that’s a good sign that the sports books feel that the Illini will play well.

They need to validate what the sports books think and play well. Could there be some changes to the starting lineup? Maybe. No matter what, the Illini must dominate early and often against the Owls.


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Safety Matthew Bailey is out for the season for the Illini.



Matthew Bailey is out for the season.

Matthew Bailey is the third player with a season-ending injury. 

Safety Matthew Bailey was supposed to take over “quarterbacking” the secondary this year. However, he will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury.

Illini head coach Bret Bielema revealed this in his Monday press conference. Bailey played briefly in Illinois’ 30-13 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions last Saturday. His shoulder injury is the latest in a season where health has been an issue. Bailey has played sparingly this year because of an ankle injury. He came up, grabbing his shoulder during Penn State’s first possession of the game.

Defensive coordinator Aaron Henry says Bailey is in good spirits despite the news. “Nothing really wavers him,” said defensive coordinator Aaron Henry. “Nothing really messes with his confidence.”

Bielema told reporters during his press conference that the rehabilitation timeline is about six months. The in-state recruit won’t rest on his laurels, however. Bielema also mentioned that Bailey is looking for ways to improve as he prepares for his return in 2024.

Next man up…who replaces Bailey?

After losing the likes of Devon Witherspoon and Sidney Brown to the NFL Draft, the Illini came into 2023 with a retooled, inexperienced secondary. Bailey was one of the young defensive backs that saw meaningful snaps in 2022. He tied for second on the team with three interceptions. Though his injury is significant, Illinois did address the secondary in the transfer portal.

The Illini have two options to replace Bailey in the secondary. Louisville transfer Nicario Harper is already part of the secondary rotation so he could slide into the starting lineup. Southern Illinois transfer Clayton Bush could also start. He’s also seen meaningful snaps this year and could step into the top of the rotation.

Henry and the defensive staff cross-train their defensive backs, so don’t be surprised if a cornerback or STAR like Elijah McCantos, Xavier Scott, or Prince Ford gets an opportunity to play as well.

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FB Recruiting

Playing Freshmen doesn’t mean you’re giving up on the season



Should Illinois football play more freshmen?
Jan 2, 2023; Tampa, FL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema takes the field fro the the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois football needs answers on offense. Could some of those answers be true freshmen?

There were some bright spots in Illinois‘ 30-13 home loss to Penn State. “The Firm” of Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph, Jr. had their best game of the season. The defense held Penn State quarterback Drew Allar to 5.9 yards per attempt and under 50% completions. The defensive front had its most consistent game against the run, limiting Penn State backs to 4.1 yards per rush attempt. Unfortunately, the offense still has issues.

Quarterback Luke Altmyer threw four interceptions, putting the defense in difficult positions all game. He was benched for Ball State transfer John Paddock, who fared better, throwing the only touchdown pass for the Illini.

Should the Illinois football turn to Paddock over Altmyer?

Though Paddock played better than Altmyer, it won’t matter if the offensive line doesn’t play better. Paddock threw the football well after settling in. Does that mean he gives the Illini a better chance to win? That’s hard to say. If Paddock plays well against Florida Atlantic, does that mean he’ll fare better in conference play?

In addition to quarterback, the Illini need another running back to step up next to Reggie Love III. Josh McCray has struggled, averaging just 2.5 yards per rush attempt. Frosh running back Kaden Feagin got some carries, but McCray might have to carry the load until someone plays well enough to get meaningful carries.

The best receivers on the field were freshmen.

Altmyer tried to push the football down the field. A couple of his interceptions were because his receivers could not separate from Penn State’s defensive backs. However, freshman receiver Kenari Wilcher had the biggest catch of the day, a 47-yard reception. And fellow freshman Malik Elzy hauled in a nice touchdown reception on a 50/50 ball. The Illini play a struggling FAU team this weekend. There is nothing wrong with giving Elzy, Wilcher, Ashton Hollins, and Hank Beatty some meaningful snaps to see what you have.

They will have to figure out the running game and the explosive passing game before they get into the meat and potatoes of their conference schedule.

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