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Bielema's first Illinois campaign: What are the mid-term grades?

Bret Bielema and Josh Whitman via Peoria Journal star.

August 28, 2021, marked the official start of Illinois football under the guidance of Bret Bielema as head coach. It appeared on the surface as a mixed bag early schedule but one with which the Illini could make some headway.

Vs. Nebraska

Vs Texas San Antonio (UTSA)

AT Virginia

Vs. Maryland

At Purdue

Vs. Charlotte

Looking at this, it was not hard to envision Illinois going 4-2 or with an upset possibly 5-1. That, however, was on paper, not on the field.

8/28/21 Vs. Nebraska Illinois 30-Nebraska 22 Grade: B+

Despite losing QB Brandon Peters in the 1st quarter, the Illini rallied around backup Art Sitkowski and went on to win the game 30-22. The Illini running game showed promise, with Jr Mike Epstein getting 75 yards on 16 carries, So Reggie Love III rumbled for 45 yards on 12 carries. In total, Illinois would gain 169 yards on the ground.

Peters would go 3 for 4 in passing for 35 yards before leaving the game. Sitkowski was 12-15 for 124 yds. Two of the biggest plays would come on defense: a first-quarter safety and a second-quarter scoop and run of a Nebraska fumble. Along with Peters, CJ Hart would be injured as well. He has been deemed out for the season. While there were issues with the secondary All in All, it was a good season opener.

The passing defense showed some holes as the Nebraska tandem of QB Adrian Martinez and WR Oliver Martin had their way.

Adrian Martinez 16-32 - 232Yds, 1TD 0INT, 17 carries for 111 Yds, 1TD

Oliver Martin 6 catches 103 Yds, 1TD.

9/4/21 UTSA Grade: UTSA 37- Illinois 30 C-

Art Sitkowski started and had a so-so passing day completion wise only 22-42, But the Sophomore would throw for 266 yards and 3 touchdowns. Isaiah Williams caught 8 of those passes for 101 yards but could not get into the end zone. TE Daniel Baker would get 5 receptions for 74 yards and 2 scores. This week though, the running game faltered as Sitkowski was second in rushing yards. The Illini also lost Mike Epstein in the 4th quarter.

Deuce Spann, who had a big catch vs. Nebraska, got his first TD as a WR for Illinois.

Defensively The Illini secondary was torched for 280 yards passing by QB Frank Harris on 20-32 passing. WR Zakhari Franklin found holes in the secondary for 155 yards and a TD on 10 receptions. The Illini could not mount a much of a pass rush getting to Harris only once. Along with the injury to Epstein, Chase Hayden also got banged up.

While UTSA is a good team, The effort by Illinois was lacking.

9/11/21 University of Virginia. Virginia 42 - Illinois 14 Grade D-

The only way to describe this game is UG-ly.

The Illinois passing defense was exposed in this game Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong 27-36, 405 yards and 5 TDs. in all, the Cavaliers would get 423 passing yards and 133 rushing for a total of 556.

Jake Hansen via U of I

However, Linebacker Jake Hansen did force two fumbles and recovered one.

DB Kerby Joseph would have an interception as they would be the two bright spots Defensively.

The forced fumbles put Hansen 1 behind former Illini and NFL star Simeon Rice (13) for most forced fumbles in a career.

Offensively Art Sitkowski Again had a so-so-day completion-wise game (24-45). Yardage wise it was the second straight 200 yard day. (221 yards) 1 TD and 1 INT. In two games, he would hook up with Deuce Spann for a 33 yard TD Spann's 2nd TD.

Chase Brown had a 28 yard TD.

Only a few bright spots in an otherwise dismal outing.

9/18/21 Vs. Maryland Maryland 20 - Illinois 17 Grade C+

Illinois put up a balanced attack of 368 yards of offense, 185 yards passing, and 183 yards rushing.

Brandon Peters came back from injury, going 10-26 for 185 yards and an interception. Freshman running back Josh McCray got his first start had 8 carries for 60 yards and 1TD. Reggie Love III had 63 yards on 10 carries, and Chase brown added 57 yards on 14 carries and 54 yards on two catches. Illinois other touchdown came on when Love III fumbled at the 38. Casey Washington picked it up and rambled 30 yards for the score.

Defensively Jake Hansen would have 11 solo tackles, including his first sack of the season. One of three sacks for the Illinois defense would record on the day. Jartavius Martin added 10 total tackles OLB Seth Coleman had 6 tackles (3 solo tackles), a forced fumble, fumble recovery, and one pass deflection.

Illinois led 17-10 with 4:50 to go, and on their own 14, Maryland would go 86 yards in 8 plays in 2:37, tie the game at 17. A failed Illinois drive and Maryland took over on the Illinois 46 with 47 seconds left 3 plays later, a 32-yard field goal by Joseph Petrino with the clock showing:00 gave Maryland the win. Illinois dropped to 1-3 and 1-1 in the conference. The Illini defense played a solid game until the last 4:50. The offense is still showing protection issues that are disturbing for such a seasoned group.

September 25, At Purdue, Purdue 13 - Illinois 9 Grade B

If you like field goals, this was the game to watch. For three quarters, neither team could cross the goal line. With 9:26 to go in the final quarter and Illinois holding on to a narrow 3 point lead, Purdue had the ball at their 6-yard line. They marched down the field in 10 plays using 3:42 seconds. Aidan O'Connell connected with TJ Sheffield for a 14-yard pass for the lone TD of the game.


In his first start as the primary running back, Illinois freshman running back Josh McCray carried the ball 24 times for 167 yards. Illini QB Brandon Peters was 14-26 for only 100 yards. He threw no interceptions but was sacked twice.

The Illinois Defense would have 3 sacks on the day and two picks. They held a Purdue offense that scored 79 points in their first two games to just 13 points. Pass defense was better but still allowed 277 yards passing. Tony Adams got his first interception of the year. Owen Carney Jr registered 1.5 sacks. Kerby Joseph picked off his team-leading 3rd INT of the season.

The loss puts Illinois on a 4 game losing skid at 1-4 and 1-2 in conference play.

October 2, vs. University of Charlotte Illinois 24 - Charlotte 14 A-

Illinois needed a redeeming win, and they got it when Charlotte came to town.

The Illini faithful were skeptical at the have as the 49ers stood toe to toe with Illinois and had a 14-10 lead at the half. A determined Illini defense came out in the second half and clamped down on the visitors from Conference USA. And allowed only 99 yards from scrimmage (they gave up 172 in the first half). Illinois would amass 414 total yards, only 99 in the first half. Chase Brown would rush for 257 yards, the fourth-most yards gained by an Illinois running back in a single game. 216 yards came in the second half, 80 of those for his second TD of the game.

For the second game in a row, Owen Carney Jr recorded multiple sacks(2) to give him 4.5 sacks this season and 14 for his career. It was a good thing Brown had the game he did because the Illinois passing game was almost non-existent as Brandon Peters was 10-19 for 78 yards. He did get Illinois 1st TD of the game, a 10-yard completion to Daniel Barker in the second quarter.

I give the defense a solid B

All in all, the Illinois defense has shown very steady improvement, despite some injuries. Kerby Joseph, Owen Carney, Seth Coleman, and Jake Hansen all make steady contributions across the board. Defensive Coordinator Ryan Walters seems to have found a solid formula. However, pass defense is still shaky but trending up. Update- Jake Hansen is now out for the season with a knee injury. this could put some strain on the linebacking corps.

I give the offense a shaky C

The running game seems to be strong with multiple options in McCray, Brown, and Love III. However, they have lost Mike Epstein for the year.

However, the passing game is a different story, and in the future could be the weak spot teams will exploit. Offensive Coordinator Tony Peterson has his work cut out for him in this respect. It has been reported that Ryan Johnson and Matt Robinson have seen reps after Brandon Peters went down in the Wisconsin game. It is unknown at this time how hard they are being looked at.

Special Teams an A

Special teams have been fantastic with Punter Blake Haye,s who is top in most Illinois categories for his career, including 91 punts inside the 20 yard line. This year he is averaging over 45 yards per kick, including an 80 yarder against Purdue.

Likewise, placekicker James McCourt is showing off his golden toe. He is 8-12 FG with one being blocked but he has shown significant distance hitting three 50+ yard field goals 2 vs UTSA (52 and 53) and 1 vs Purdue (51) and another from 45 yards vs Purdue.

While the overall grade is a B-, there is much room for improvement, and Coach Bielema and his staff have a lot of work to do. Not only to finish out this season but to build for next year with so many seniors leaving. Now bear in mind that turning this program around from where it has been and isn't going to be easy. It may take two or three years to get the pieces in place. So we shall see if Josh Whitman's faith in Coach Bielema is warranted.

As always, thanks for reading.

I appreciate your comments and questions. You can contact me here. Or on Facebook wherever this is shared, or you can message me directly on Twitter @BigD_GCS.

See you soon.

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