Quick 2020 Recap
It looked like Illinois was beginning to turn a corner after winning six games and making a bowl appearance in 2019. However, they couldn’t carry that momentum into 2020, finishing just 2-6. The two wins came against Rutgers and Nebraska in consecutive weeks, and every lost was by at least two touchdowns, with the exception of a 31-24 defeat at the hands of Purdue in week two. Lovie Smith was given his pink slip after the penultimate game of the season, a 28-10 loss at Northwestern. As you likely remember, the Illini ended the season in Beaver Stadium in a 56-21 loss on December 19.
Offensive Player to Watch: RB Chase Brown
Illinois figures to use a running-back-by-committee approach to take advantage of the deepest spot of the roster, but Brown seems to have the most breakout potential. Just a sophomore in terms of eligibility, the Ontario native put together a fine season in 2020 as his role in the offense continued to grow. Brown’s best game came against Rutgers, when he helped carry the Illini to a 23-20 win by averaging 7.7 yards per carry and 131 for the day.
Defensive Player to Watch: LB Jake Hansen
Hansen returns for his “super senior” year after a standout season in 2020 when he was named second team All-Big Ten. Hansen’s career with the Illini goes all the way to 2016, when he played in all 12 games as a true freshman. After missing the 2017 season with an injury, Hansen has started in every game he’s appeared in and has become one of the most productive Illini defenders in recent history. Hansen is not only a sure tackler, but also a playmaker. On top of the team-leading 68 tackles, he also had 10 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Major Changes for 2021
Goodbye Lovie Smith, hello Bret Bielema. Smith, most commonly known for taking the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, made it five seasons before being let go after failing to put together a winning record, and just one bowl appearance. In comes Bielema, most commonly known for playing Butthead’s estranged father in the 1996 film Beavis and Butthead Do America, who will begin his first campaign with the Illini after head coaching stints in Wisconsin and Arkansas. After winning three consecutive Big Ten Championships (included a shared title with Michigan State in 2010 prior to the implementation of the Big Ten Championship Game), Bielema abruptly left for Arkansas. He never found similar success with the Razorbacks and was let go after five years, following a 4-8 record in 2017.
Penn State Wins If
Illinois will be restarting the process of building back the program with a new staff in place following a 2-6 record, and since Penn State will be coming off a bye, this looks to be the most favorable game on the schedule outside of Villanova. The Nittany Lions will need to play to their potential and let their playmakers shine, and good things will happen.
Illinois Wins If
They catch Penn State looking ahead to the trip to Columbus in the following week.