With Indiana set to travel to Champaign for a matchup that’ll either keep the bowl dream alive or end it in its tracks, we reached out to The Champaign Room for some insight on the Illini.
Their Pleas Andrew Honeywood provided the answers we were looking for. Check out the responses to our questions below:insight on the Illi
1. What’s the general vibe of the Bret Bielema era for Illinois so far? Last season obviously being a big step forward for the Illini while they’ve seemed to come together as the season has gone on this year.
The general vibe of the Bret Bielema era is one of “normalcy.” It’s a return to competent Big Ten football for the most part. Bielema has done some fundamental things that have been seen as strong program CEO maneuvers.
He’s re-established ties with in-state high school coaches. The previous staff led by Lovie Smith largely disengaged from the in-state recruiting battles. They believed in the “135th best guy from Florida is better than the 12th best guy from Illinois” mantra. It burned some bridges that the current staff has tried to repair. And so far, the results have been far more positive in-state.
And those in-state recruiting gains have been a big part of Illinois landing players like Kaden Feagin (Big Ten Freshman of the Week for whom Illinois had to hold off Iowa and Notre Dame), Malik Elzy (Illinois beat Luke Fickell’s former staff at Cincinnati and his current staff in Madison), Brandon Henderson (helped reopen the fertile East St. Louis talent pipeline), and Aidan Laughery (Illinois beat Iowa for him). These are in-state players who are either making a major impact now or project to do so in the near future.
As far as on the field goes, there have been mixed results. Illinois is 5-8 since getting off to a stellar 7-1 start last season. There have been some close, heartbreaking losses. There have been some questionable playcalling decisions. There have been some rough spots for a largely inexperienced secondary that lost Kendall Smith, Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, and Devon Witherspoon. There have been real questions about whether offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. is putting the offense in the best positions to succeed. So yes, it has been a mixed bag. But considering how bleak things looked after losses to Wisconsin, Purdue and Nebraska, even being able to sniff bowl eligibility is a significant move forward.
Winning last week on the road in Minneapolis was a major moment. The win itself was a big deal. But how the Illini won (backup quarterback John Paddock entering the game in the final two minutes on 4th and 10 at the Illinois 15 yard-line and throwing three straight dimes for a game-winning touchdown) was even more significant. Illinois squandered its momentum from an earlier roadkill against Maryland. We’ll see if they are in for a similar letdown against the Hoosiers.
2. What would you say is Illinois’ style of play on both sides of the ball this year? Any apparent strengths and weaknesses as a unit on offense and defense?
Offensively, Illinois has had to adjust its style significantly. Illinois has lost all four of its top projected running backs to injuries this year. Starter Josh McCray is done for the season. Jordan Anderson has missed/will miss the entire season due to a camp injury. And neither Aidan Laughery nor Reggie Love made the trip to Minneapolis. So the Illini have had to use true freshman Kaden Feagin as the primary weapon in the backfield. Thankfully, he’s been more than apt to handle the load. He’s put up 80+ rushing yards in 4 of his last 5 games. He even took a screen pass to the house against the Gophers. He’s been more than up to the challenge. Unfortunately, last week he was one of only two scholarship running backs in uniform.
Illinois has relied a bit more on its aerial attack with QB Luke Altmyer. It looks like Altmyer may not be able to play on Saturday. Bielema hasn’t said either way, yet. But there may be a concussion protocol situation from what I hear.
So there is a chance backup QB John Paddock will get the start.
It’s been a tale of two seasons for the grad transfer from Ball State. In his first appearance against Penn State, he was shaky at best. While he did move the ball and lead the Illini into the end zone, he made some inaccurate throws and a few that were head-scratchingly bad.
Against Minnesota, Paddock had one of the most amazing performances you will ever see from a backup entering a game cold. He converted a 4th and 10 from his own 15 on his first snap. He then completed two more passes, one of which was a touchdown to Isaiah Williams. His stat line was 3-3 for 85 yards and a touchdown. His quarterback rating was 448. Seriously, that’s a real thing.
So I have no idea which version of Paddock will show up. But the kid doesn’t lack confidence. He commands the huddle well and he seems to have been embraced by his teammates. So he may be able to tread water well enough to win a conference game.
Defensively, this team is largely reliant on getting home with pressure from its front four. An inexperienced secondary inspired the Illini to bring less pressure early in the season. Projected starting safety Matthew Bailey has missed the entire season, which has been a tough hole to plug when you factor in all of the players from last year’s elite group who are in the NFL. Xavier Scott, Miles Scott, and Clayton Bush have made contributions, but the defensive backfield isn’t the same. The more weeks of game experiences that the younger secondary players gain, the more Defensive Coordinator Aaron Henry will trust his front seven to bring more pressure.
The pass rush is improving. Edge rushers Gabe Jacas and Seth Coleman are both NFL talents, but both need to step up their production in the next three games if the Illini plan on seeing a bowl game.
But really, the defensive focus is built around two primary guys...
3. Who are some players that Indiana should worry about on offense and defense?
Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph are the two most significant impact players on defense. They anchor the Illini interior defensive front. Newton is an absolute game-wrecking force with drive-stopping power. He served a suspension for the first half of the Minnesota game, and his absence was significant. He came into the game like a man possessed and lived in the Gopher backfield. He is clearly on a trajectory to hear his name called in the first round of the NFL draft. Randolph may be slightly less of an athletic freak, but he’s effective at stopping the run and getting pressure on quarterbacks. He’s an all-conference level player who doesn’t get nearly enough individual plaudits because he’s often referred to as the second name in the “Law Firm.”
Offensively, WR Isaiah Williams is a key player to focus on. He’s currently leading the Big Ten in receptions. He lines up mostly in the slot, but has gotten more deep ball looks on the outside this year. He, along with Feagin, are the quarterback’s best weapons.he quarterback
4. Score and result prediction?
This is tough for me, because Illinois has been so inconsistent this season. This game is a winnable home game for the Illini. Indiana looks like a good matchup. But this game won’t be a blowout on either side. I see a close Illinois win, so I’m going Illinois 20-17.
5. Let’s say, theoretically, that some of us will be in Champaign for the game. What would be a good place to go have a bite/grab a beer afterwards? Or just sights to see?
So I outsourced the question to my colleagues at The Champaign Room. So shout out to Mihir Chavan for recommending the breakfast at Merry Ann’s Diner on the way out of town, or Sunday burgers at Joe’s (but please don’t go there after the game...you’ll regret it). If you’re walking up Green Street (spoiler alert: you will be), you can also get some quality food at Chopstix or Burrito King (can confirm on both).
I speak from the perspective of Illinois alumni from...much earlier this century. I recommend stopping by Murphy’s after the game for a beer and a burger. It’s always been pretty chill. But most people don’t really go to Champaign to chill.