While it's been proven that Bret Bielema has always been successful in the second season everywhere he's coached, that wasn't a guarantee for the Illinois Fighting Illini heading into 2022. This was a team that only had one winning season since 2014, and prior to Bielema's arrival in '21 had gone through four other head coaches in that seven-year span. When the 2022 campaign kicked off in August, the Illini faithful were asking for any small signs of progress. As it turned out, they got that, and then some.
Illinois enters its bye week 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten West. The Fighting Illini are tied with Purdue atop the division standings and are in the AP Top 25 (No. 18) for the first time since 2011. Bielema's team is currently riding a five-game winning streak during which Illinois has outscored its opponents 124-33. The defense ranks among the best in the nation, the offense is improved and powered by the country's leading rusher, and even though there are still five games to play, the Illini are already bowl eligible. There's still plenty left to play for with loftier goals within reach. Here's a quick look at how Illinois got to this point and what lies ahead the rest of the way.
Offensive MVP: Chase Brown, RB
An Athlon Sports midseason first-team All-American, Brown is leading the nation in rushing with 1,059 yards. He's gone over 100 yards in each of Illinois' seven games and also has been the busiest ball carrier in FBS with 192 carries.
Brown's efforts are a prime reason why Illinois ranks 28th in the country in rushing offense (199.0 ypg) and is sixth in the Big Ten in total offense (415.9 ypg). He's been named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week twice and is in line for plenty more awards by the season's end if he can maintain his impressive production. He may even make a strong enough case to be a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Defensive MVP: Just about all 11 starters
It's hard to pick just one player because multiple defenders have contributed significantly to the Illini's success. Defensive back Devon Witherspoon is tied for the FBS lead in pass breakups (11), fellow DB Kendall Smith is tied for second in the country in interceptions (4), defensive linemen Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer'Zhan Newton are tied for fifth in the Big Ten in sacks (4.0 each). Newton also is the leading tackler on the team (37). Other players making an impact are linebackers Issac Darkangelo (30 tackles), Gabe Jacas, and Seth Coleman (combined 48 tackles and 7.5 sacks), as well as defensive backs Sydney Brown and Jartavius Martin (combined 15 PBUs and three picks).
Best Moment of First Half: Consecutive wins over Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota
Illinois held the Badgers to just two – yes two –rushing yards as the Illini picked up their first win in Madison in 20 years on Oct. 1. A week later, they limited Iowa to just two field goals in their first victory over the Hawkeyes since 2008. Then last week, Illinois held Minnesota to just 14 points and limited the passing attack to a total of 38 yards for a 26-14 win.
This marks the first time that the Illini have defeated all three of their Big Ten West rivals in the same season since the Big Ten shifted to its current divisional alignment in 2014. Illinois now controls its own destiny when it comes to securing the West title, especially when you consider that the Badgers and Hawkeyes have won it six of the last eight seasons (Northwestern won the other two). These impressive, streak-busting victories have potentially set the Illini up for a truly special season.
Best Newcomer: Tommy DeVito, QB
The Syracuse transfer was never the full-time starter for the Orange, but he has seized the opportunity with the Illini. He has started every game thus far and even though he left the Iowa game with an ankle injury he was back out there the following week against Minnesota. DeVito has thrived in offensive coordinator Barry Lumne Jr.'s system while also benefitting from Chase Brown's ground production. DeVito is completing 70.4 percent of his passes for 1,415 yards with a very tidy 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He's also chipped in four rushing touchdowns. His numbers may not be as prolific as some of his peers, but he's provided stability at the quarterback position that Illinois had been lacking for some time.
Biggest Surprise: Loss to Indiana
Against the Hoosiers in early September, the Illini looked more like teams from seasons past. They blew a four-point lead with just 23 seconds left after allowing Indiana to march 75 yards in 12 plays, culminating with a game-winning, one-yard touchdown plunge. Illinois also committed four turnovers in that game (three lost fumbles) and was flagged for eight penalties (for 81 yards). Illinois hasn't lost since so it's obvious that the team learned its lessons from that experience and used them to improve rather than letting the undesired result carry over and continue to impact their play on the field.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Staying healthy
Tommy DeVito's ankle injury was a reminder of how one injured player can affect a team. After DeVito was removed from the Iowa game, his backup Artur Sitkowski, completed just 13 of 19 passes for 74 yards (3.9 ypa) and an interception. DeVito's production and presence are too valuable to lose him for a lengthy period of time. Chase Brown is an even more critical piece to Illinois' current blueprint for success and there are some key defenders too. Injuries are just part of the game but the Illini have remained relatively healthy to this point, and it needs to stay that way or this roster's depth could really be tested.
2. Try not to think about a conference title
I know it's tempting at this point, but the Illini still have a couple of big matchups on their schedule as well as some potential trap games (see below). This team needs to keep taking it one game at a time and focus on the task in front of them, just as they've been doing so far.
3. Don't change a thing
As the old saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Providing everyone stays healthy, the formula of a stingy defense, a strong rushing attack, and a consistent passing game will push this team across the finish line, and potentially to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. at Michigan, Nov. 19
2. Purdue, Nov. 12
3. at Nebraska, Oct. 29
4. Michigan State, Nov. 5
5. at Northwestern, Nov. 26
Podcast: Midseason Review, Second-Half Predictions, and Dream Conference Championship Games
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.