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2023 Opponent Snapshot: Illinois

Illinois took a major step forward in 2022. Are they now ready for a Big Ten West crown?

Purdue v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Quick 2022 Recap

Illinois was one of the darlings of the 2022 college football season thanks to an unexpected 7-1 start while peaking at #14 in the rankings. The team found success with one of the nation’s stingiest and all-around best defenses and a strong running game to jump to the top of the Big Ten West standings. However, the hopes of the division championship slipped through their fingers with a three-game losing streak to kick off the month of November. In fairness to the men in orange, the third loss came at Michigan on a last-second field goal that was aided by some questionable calls in the final moments.

Illinois finished the regular season with an 8-4 record and 5-4 conference record. They qualified for the ReliaQuest Bowl where they fell to Mississippi State 19-10.

Offensive Player to Watch: WR Isaiah Williams

Williams is one of the speediest receivers in the Big Ten and knows how to get open — basically a receiver that can drive a defense mad. The junior out of St. Louis led the team in receiving last season, with well more than twice as many receptions as second-leading receiver Pat Bryant. The Illinois offense can take a dangerous step forward with an improved passing game, and Williams will absolutely be the guy to make this happen, especially if he can produce more big plays and improve on his 8.7 yards per catch average from last season.

Defensive Player to Watch: DT Jer’Zhan Newton

Newton is the type of impact player any team on the nation would gladly welcome on their roster with open arms. He’s a 300 lb. defensive tackle that makes play after play - just think of the days with Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel in the trenches for the Nittany Lions. Newton’s stat line from his sophomore year is just obscene — he was third on the team in tackles with 62, while leading the team with 14.5 TFLs, five sacks, 11 quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries. He also managed to knock down three passes with those big mitts of his. Newton will be a problem for anyone who lines up against him this year, including the Nittany Lions.

Illinois Wins If:

The defense remains at a high level and are able to rattle Drew Allar (presumably) in his first start on the road. Illinois has a knack for getting offenses completely out of rhythm, and that will be their best bet to pull off an early season upset. They will also need to limit big plays and force the Nittany Lions to earn their way down the field. The Illinois offense will need to sustain a few long drives to eat up the clock and keep Penn State’s playmakers on the sideline.

Penn State Wins If:

Allar and the offense work out any kinks in the first two weeks and come to Champaign firing on all cylinders. The less total points, the better chance of an Illinois victory, so the Nittany Lions will benefit from a strong first half that forces the Illini to play catch up and takes them out of their comfort zone. Penn State’s opportunistic defense can help clinch things with a well-timed turnover or two, especially a pick-six or scoop and score.