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Interviews with Frenemies: Illinois

It’s been a rocky start in Champaign, how are the Illini dealing with the...pain?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Illinois rattled off six straight wins after beginning September 1-1. It’s the same start this year for the Illini heading into Saturday’s Big Noon matchup with Penn State. What are Illinois fans feeling entering this weekend’s matchup? Well, we checked in with Alma Otter of Off Tackle Empire, your SB Nation home for Big Ten coverage, to get some thoughts.

After two games, how would you assess the play of Illinois compared to expectations entering the season?

I’d be lying if I said that the Illini fanbase didn’t have high hopes for 2023. Last year’s team had the best single season since 2007 saw Ron Zook wandering aimlessly on the sidelines and most assumed that the progress that Bielema had made would continue. Toledo is a good MAC team, but we needed at miracle 4th and 4 conversion to squeak out that win. And Kansas is Kansas; the Jayhawks demolished Illinois on national TV. Beyond the win-loss record, I think we assumed that the Illini would look more polished and competent, especially on defense. That said, Bielema’s Illinois teams have tended to get better as the season progresses.

Luke Altmyer is one of six transfer quarterbacks in the B1G West. What has he brought to the Illini offense?

We’ve seen truly atrocious QB play at Illinois over the years. Personally, I’m quietly delighted with reasonably competent quarterbacking. He hasn’t been lights out and there have been several massive mistakes that resulted in interceptions, but he managed to put together a huge game-winning drive against Toledo. His play at Kansas wasn’t as clean, but he had some big throws and even more impressive runs to try to close the gap. Altmeyer has brought poise and clutch play to the Illini offense.

Speaking of the offense, Bret Bielema is known for having stout offensive lines. Through two games, this group has allowed eight sacks and the rushing numbers are down? What’s happening with that unit?

The O line hasn’t had a great start, but part of the sacks allowed and rushing stats are game flow dependent. Illinois was down 21-0 to Kansas before the second quarter started and it wasn’t really possible to rush a way out of that hole. It also hasn’t seemed like RB Josh McCray has fully recovered from the knee injury he sustained in 2022. Without Chase Brown doing the magic he did last year, it’s fallen on Altmeyer to take more chances with his legs. Sometimes that ends up with the 72 yard TD run in the Kansas game. Sometimes it ends up with Altmeyer losing 70 yards on sacks.

Jer’Zhan Newton is as impressive a defensive player as there is in the conference. While his play has been stellar, what’s up with the rest of that defense that is allowing 31 points per game?

Newton bounced back in the Kansas game after a quiet night against Toledo, but the rest of the defense has struggled, especially in containing mobile quarterbacks like Dequan Finn and Jalon Daniels. Part of this is that style of play, part of this is the loss of 3 cornerbacks in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.

What are some keys that you’ll be focusing on Saturday and any prediction?

It pains me to say it, but Penn State has looked phenomenal so far this year. Allar’s been as advertised and the RBs are solid. For Illinois, the key is for our All-American defensive line to get to Allar and pressure him all day. We can’t expect to win a track meet, but Illinois needs to make it into a rock fight and keep it close enough to take advantage of some clutch passing from Altmeyer. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention October 23, 2021 and the 9OT Game, but I don’t see it being that close. PSU 45-Illinois 24. For the love of god, please beat Michigan this year.

We’re focusing on 1-0 each week here at BSD, but we’ll keep in mind that Michigan comment. For more Big Ten coverage, get over to Off Tackle Empire.