Although 2021 marked the sixth losing season in the last seven years for the Illinois Fighting Illini, they were just one game shy of bowl eligibility in Year 1 of the Bret Bielema era. Illinois (5-7) excelled in some areas, struggled in others, and remains a work in progress heading into the offseason. But this team created a few memorable moments this past season, so here are the Illini's 2021 team awards.
Offensive MVP: Chase Brown, RB
The majority of the Illini's offensive success came on the ground, and Brown led the way. He finished the regular season seventh in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,005), sixth in rushing attempts (170), and fifth in yards per attempt (5.9). Brown went over the 100-yard mark in four games, including a pair of 200-yard performances. He's expected to return to anchor the running game in 2022.
Defensive MVP: Tarique Barnes, LB
With season-ending injuries to fellow linebacker Jake Hansen, among other players on this side of the ball, Barnes helped keep this unit together through the adversity. He led the Illini with 80 total tackles and added two sacks (fifth on the team), five pass deflections (tied for third), and an interception for good measure. Barnes will be leaned on for leadership again next season.
Best Freshman: Jer'Zhan Newton, DL
He made his presence felt on this defense as he posted 50 tackles and 3.5 sacks. The hope is that those numbers will go up next season, but the redshirt freshman certainly gives a foundation for this unit moving forward.
Best Play of the Season: Defensive stop and two-point conversion to beat Penn State
This game took a record nine overtimes to settle (thank you new NCAA rules), and it was capped off with two major plays on both sides of the ball for Illinois. First it was linebacker Khalan Tolson breaking up a potential go-ahead, two-point conversion pass by Penn State's Sean Clifford, then Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters threw the game-winning conversion to wide receiver Casey Washington. It capped off Illinois' best performance and the biggest win of the season, and this game would shape the remainder of 2021 for both teams (more on that shortly).
Best Performance (Player): Chase Brown vs. Charlotte
Not only were the 257 rushing yards he posted that day a career high for Brown, but they also were the fourth-highest single-game total in Illinois history. Brown's efforts are a major reason why Illinois averaged 6.7 yards per rushing attempt that day, which helped to keep a 49ers offense that had gone over the 30-point mark in three of its previous four games on the sidelines.
Best Performance (Team): Win over Penn State
In the longest game in FBS history, Illinois shocked the country by defeating heavily favored Penn State on its own field. The then-No. 7 Nittany Lions seemed prime to bounce back after suffering their first loss of the season against Iowa the previous week, while the Illini entered having lost five of their previous seven games. Instead, the Illini stayed grounded, posting 357 rushing yards, the most by a visiting conference team in Beaver Stadium history. Brown was responsible for 223 of these yards, which came against a Penn State defense that was ranked fifth in the Big Ten prior to this game.
But the defense did its part as well, holding the Nittany Lions to just 10 first-half points and shutting them out in the second half. It wasn't always pretty and took a long time to finish, but this game showed a flash of how good a Bielema-coached Illini team can be when all of the puzzle pieces are in place.
Defining Moment: Beating Penn State
This was actually a defining moment for both teams. This win helped Illinois bounce back from being shut out by Wisconsin the previous week, and renewed hopes of becoming bowl eligible. As for Penn State, this wound up being the second game of what became a three-game losing streak. This came after the Nittany Lions started the year 5-0 and had them in the conversation as a contender in the Big Ten East.
After this game, the Illini went 3-2, fishing just one win shy of bowl eligibility. On the other hand, Penn State would go on to lose three of its final five games, as its Big Ten championship hopes faded in the process.
Biggest Surprise: Defeating Penn State and Minnesota
The Illini were heavily favored to lose both nationally televised games, but instead they came out on top. They did so with their power-rushing attack and stout performances by their defense. On top of that, both wins ultimately played a role in derailing the conference championship aspirations of these conference foes.
Biggest Disappointment: Losing to UTSA at home
Before this game, the Roadrunners had never played a Big Ten team, and had gone 1-14 in their previous matchups against Power 5 opponents. But not only did the Roadrunners defeat Illinois, they did so in Champaign, and at times seemed to overwhelm the Illini during the course of the game. While this game was viewed as a major upset, UTSA did go on to post an 11-1 record and win the Conference USA title.
Senior Who Will Be Missed the Most: Mike Epstein, RB
Although his collegiate career was marred by injuries, Epstein was loved and respected by both his team and the Illini faithful. He collected 1,276 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 219 carries over 22 games in five seasons. Epstein was a hard runner who gave defenses fits when healthy, but also was a positive force both on the sidelines and in the locker room when he wasn't playing. The energy he brought to this team will be missed.
Player to Watch in 2022: Chase Brown, RB
He still has eligibility left and since Bielema likes to run the ball, you can expect Brown to be the Illini's feature back again in 2022. If Illinois can dominate on the ground again next year, and improve the passing attack, this offense will be a force to be reckoned with.
Offseason Storyline: Adding depth at quarterback
This position has been an issue going back to the Lovie Smith era. Even with Brandon Peters on board, he's only thrown for 1,599 yards and 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons as he's dealt with injuries and also tested positive for COVID-19 last season. With Peters moving on, Illinois only has so much experience at the position currently on the roster. Former Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski is expected to be the front-runner, but his overall body of work (2,729 passing yards, 53.2 completion rate, 14 TDs, 22 INTs in 20 career games) leaves plenty to be desired.
Sitkowski also has dealt with some injuries, including a broken arm this season. Matt Robinson has seen even less action than Sitkowski, as he's appeared in just 11 games (508 yds., TD) during his three seasons. Isaiah Williams has experience at quarterback (431 passing yds., 4 TDs from 2019-20), but all signs point to Illinois keeping him at wide receiver.
The only other quarterbacks on the roster right now are Ryan Johnson and Samari Collier, who have yet to appear in a game. The Illini have only signed one signal-caller so far for the 2022 class, Donovan Leary out of Timber Creek High School in New Jersey. Bielema may turn to the transfer portal to bring someone with experience to add to the competition with an eye towards spring practice.
— 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.