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Illinois vs. Virginia Football Prediction and Preview

Nick Jackson, Virginia Cavaliers Football

Nick Jackson and the Cavaliers take on the Fighting Illini in Charlottesville

Saturday marks the first road trip of the 2021 college football season for the Illinois Fighting Illini (1-1) when they head east to take on the Virginia Cavaliers (1-0). This will be the first non-conference road game for the Illini since 2019 (UConn), as they were limited to just Big Ten opponents last year due to the pandemic. For the Cavaliers, this will be only the second non-conference home game since 2019, as they only had one non-ACC opponent last year.

After starting the season with a conference win over Nebraska in Week 0, Illinois last week was upset by an up-and-coming UTSA team. The Illini offense was efficient again, but the defense continued to give up big plays. As for Virginia ... they opened up their season last week with a win over FCS William & Mary. Now, the Cavaliers seek their first win over a Big Ten team since 2011 and first-ever vs. Illinois (more on that shortly). The Illini, on the other hand, are looking to get back on the winning track.

Illinois at Virginia

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 11 at 11 a.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Virginia -9.5

When Illinois Has the Ball

Ever since Brandon Peters hurt his non-throwing shoulder against Nebraska two weeks ago, Artur Sitkowski has held down the fort at quarterback. He's completed 59 percent of his passes for 390 yards and five touchdowns, good for a 146.1 passer rating, and only took one sack. Isaiah Williams is the Illini's top receiver (14 receptions, 142 yards, 1 TD, 10.1 ypa). Sitkowski, a transfer from Rutgers, has certainly benefited from the Illini's strong offensive line. 

That same O-line has also paved the way for Illinois' strong run game. Illinois ranked third in the Big Ten last season with 196.1 rushing yards per game last season and return four starters on the line plus every key rusher. The team has only averaged 158.5 rushing yards through two games, but Mike Epstein (25 att., 107 yds., TD) and Reggie Love III (23 att., 84 yds.) are taking on bigger roles while Jakari Norwood and Chase Brown (combined for 66 yards) have also gotten their share of carries.

Illinois will be lining up against a defense that pitched a shutout against William & Mary a week ago (43-0). They also held the Tribe to just 89 passing yards (5.6 ypa) and 94 rushing yards (2.5 ypa), while registering seven tackles for loss against. The Cavalier defense is led by linebackers Nick Jackson (12 total tackles against W&M), Noah Taylor (2 TFLs, 1 quarterback hurry), and Hunter Stewart (6 tackles, 1.5 TFLs), along with defensive lineman Mandy Alonso (1 sack, 1 TFL), and safety Joey Blount (8 tackles). The Illini will present a bigger challenge, especially since they've scored 30 points in each of their first two games. But Virginia's performance last week gives them a foundation to work with.

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When Virginia Has the Ball

Junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong leads the Cavalier offense once again. He completed 67 percent of his passes last week for 339 yards and two touchdowns (10.9 ypa). He's completed over 60 percent of his attempts in eight of his 18 career games with Virginia, has thrown for 200 or more yards in eight of his last 10 games dating back to last season, and compiled a passer rating over 100 in 13 of those 18 games. He also has two of UVA's three rushing touchdowns — the consistency is definitely there.

Backup quarterbacks Iraken Armstead and Keytaon Thompson, along with running back Wayne Taulapapa lead the rushing attack (combined for 14 carries for 145 yards). The aforementioned Thompson (5 rec., 66 yds.) and wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (4, 94) are Armstrong's top pass catchers. Expect Thompson to be used in a variety of ways against Illinois. 

UVA will have its chances against an Illinois defense that's already surrendered 59 points, and 889 total yards of offense through two games, while only forcing three turnovers (all fumble recoveries). The Illini have particularly struggled against quarterbacks. Nebraska's Adrian Martinez posted 232 passing yards, 111 rushing yards, and two touchdowns against this unit two weeks ago. Then last week, UTSA's Frank Harris recorded 313 total yards, threw for a touchdown, and ran for another score. 

Defensive back Tony Adams leads Illinois in tackles (18), defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. leads the team in both sacks (2) and TFL's (2.5), and defensive back Devon Witherspoon leads the Illini in pass deflections (6). 

Final Analysis

Illinois is 22-12 all-time against the ACC but lost its last two games against the conference (back-to-back losses to North Carolina in 2015 and '16). However, the Illini have never lost to Virginia (2-0), and this will be their first meeting since the 1999 season. As for the Cavaliers, they're 2-2 in their last four games against the Big Ten but haven't played against the conference since 2018 (loss to Indiana). On the other hand, Virginia has won each of its last five home games.

The Cavaliers have also gone over the 30-point mark in six of their last seven games at Scott Stadium. Home field advantage, plus concerns about Illinois' defense, gives Virginia a close win over the Illini.

Prediction: Virginia 30, Illinois 27

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