Illinois football final scores: Defense shows significant improvements, offense remains poor, special teams dazzle

And just like that, Illinois football season is over. While it would have been easy to end a losing season quietly, Bielema’s side found a way to end on a high note in a 47-14 loss to Northwestern to move up to 5-7.

Thinking back to the countryside, I would pick fruits on hand to classify them as rowdy. But this is no less true. The Illini have started the season 1-4, but they’ve also found a way to win back-to-back road games against ranked opponents later in the season against Penn State and Minnesota.

Without a doubt, Illinois were a better team in their season finale than they were when they started out, which is especially impressive considering how weird the season is. Here’s a short list of some unexpected happenings this season: Illinois reshuffled their coaching staff, experienced mid-season quarterback competition despite an established starter early in the season, and saw their head coach catch COVID-19 and miss a game.

Bielema inherited a roster full of students in the upper grades, including one of the top performing senior classes in the country. There is certainly something to be said for Bielema to have so many older players trust him in the first year. Aside from keeping the seniors, there is no doubt that teaching them a new system after years of playing under Lovie Smith was his own task.

On top of everything, Illinois was just a bad football team in Smith’s last season at Champaign. There is no hiding that can be made behind a 2-6 record. And, despite everything, Bielema brought the Illini back to respectability.

With a full Illinois football season on the books, it’s time to look back and give some overall marks for the year.

Offense: C +

Even a C + can be generous here. The offense was third-to-last in the Big Ten in points per game at 20.2 behind a strong running offense and equally frail passing play.

The good news is that the ground game has been fueled by two young players, Chase Brown and Josh McCray. Brown had a 1,000-yard season behind two separate games in which he exceeded 200 rushing yards. McCray, a true freshman, was no slouch himself and played several games in which he exceeded 100 yards. With two legitimately talented full-backs on the roster, the Illini have a chance to be dangerous on the pitch in the future.

The passing game is a bit of a different story. This season, Brandon Peters and Artur Sitkowski took turns putting on poor performances before Sitkoswki fell with a broken arm at the end of the season against Penn State. From there, Peters took the starting position and did a commendable job. His touches declined significantly, but his effectiveness increased, leading to one of the most successful four-game streaks of his time with the Illini.

Overall, Illinois landed dead last in the Big Ten for passing yards per game at 156.2. They weren’t particularly effective either, at 51.2%. The only bright spot was the lack of interceptions, with the Illini having the fewest in the Big Ten with six.

Peters will finally be graduating after being in college for what seems like an eternity, so Illinois will have to look to a healed Sitkowski or someone new next year. Given the lack of a clear successor, it may be a bit before the Illini come to grips with their quarterback situation.

Defense: B

Like everything else on this team, the defense has improved over the season. Initially, nothing seemed to be working for new defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, as the Illini have seen their opponents averaging 33.7 points against them in their first three games of the season. After Illinois lost 42-14 to Virginia, however, a switch seemed to flip. In the other nine games of the season, opponents Illinois have averaged just 18 points per game, a number that would have put the Illini in fourth in the Big Ten in defense of goal if he had maintained this rhythm all season.

Overall, Illinois finished eighth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing a respectable 21.9 points per game overall. The Illini had a strong passing defense, allowing 215.2 yards per game. The rushing game was a little less efficient, allowing 151.1 yards per game. The Illini will lose a few coins in the offseason, but Walters has proven he can train a defensive unit when given enough time.

Special teams: A

If there was one constant this season, it was the Blake Hayes and James McCourt tandem running by far as Illinois’ strongest unit. Hayes capped what has been an excellent career with the Illini, setting the program record for over 50 punts over 50 yards in a season and the overall record for most punts in the 20-line. yards. Hayes even had an 80-yard punt at one point this season, the seventh longest in program history.

McCourt was no slouch himself, with an 18/23 record on the baskets. He set the program record for field goals over 50 yards this season when he rose to eight overall in his time with the Illini.

For an Illini team flirting with mediocrity, they can be proud to have a unit that rightfully deserves praise thanks to McCourt and Hayes.

All things considered, the first year of the Bret Bielema era has exceeded expectations. The Illini had a long list of potential excuses for ending up with a low winning tally, but they ended up nearing 0.500 by the end of the year. Things didn’t go perfectly – they rarely do – but the move from a football team from 2-6 to 5-7 without major additions to the roster demonstrates nothing less than the excellence of the team. ‘coaching.

With a successful first season in hand and a new recruiting class on the horizon, the future looks bright for the Illini at last.

@WesHollenberg


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