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5 Questions with The Champaign Room: Are the Fighting Illini for real?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Nebraska Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State will look to rebound after a 29-7 loss to archrival Michigan last Saturday, and a game that will be more remembered for the aftermath rather than the contest itself. MSU will have its chance to bounce back this weekend as the Spartans travel to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Illinois is off to a surprising 7-1 (4-1 in Big Ten Play) start to the 2022 season, and currently leads the Big Ten West Division. Bret Bielema’s team has punished opponents with a strong defense and an effective running game on offense. Are the Fighting Illini a true contender, though?

We wanted to find out more about Illinois and what this team brings to the table, so we reached out to Mihir Chavan of The Champaign Room — SB Nation’s source for Fighting Illini athletics.

Our conversation is below.

1. Illinois is off to a surprisingly strong start at 7-1. What has worked well for the Fighting Illini? What would you still like to see improved?

Mihir: The real start of this turnaround was the Virginia game last year. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters moved from the booth to the field to coach the team. Since then, Illinois has gone 11-6 and held teams to under 20 points for all but two games, Wisconsin last year and Indiana this year (Iowa had a kickoff return and a pick-six so the Hawkeyes’ 33 points in 2021 have an asterisk). This defense has been phenomenal against the pass and even better against the run. I also wrote about Illinois’ strength and conditioning. Our players are faster, stronger and more athletic than we have been in the last 10 years. The offense definitely needs work. Pat Bryant and Brian Hightower have been great on long balls, but Illinois needs more length and speed in the wide receiver room.

2. Illinois currently has the No. 1-ranked scoring defense and total defense in the nation. The Illini also come in at No. 1 for defense in the SP+ rankings. What makes the unit so strong? Who are the players to watch on that side of the ball?

Mihir: If Lovie Smith did one thing well, it was recruiting defensive players with great football IQ and fundamentals. Bret Bielema’s staff were able to develop them and turn the right buttons. Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, Seth Coleman, Tarique Barnes, Devon Witherspoon, Calvin Avery, Kendall Smith and Jamal Woods were all Lovie’s ‘croots. They are stars this year. This team is older and is part of the reason why they work so well. Out of that group, outside linebacker Seth Coleman is my guy to watch. He is quick, lengthy and effective in the pass rush, run defense and playing off the line. He doesn’t pad the stat sheet in tackles and sacks, but leads the team in quarterback hurries and is third in passes broken up.

3. Offensively, outside of Chase Brown and Tommy DeVito, who are the players to watch on Illinois’ offense and why?

Mihir: I would say running back Josh McCray and the tight ends, Michael Marchese, Luke Ford and Tip Reiman. McCray should be back in form and provides a great change of pace to Chase Brown. He lines up 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and runs straight down into the gut of the defense. The tight ends are great at run blocking, and when used in passing plays, get solid chunk yards.

4. Given the start, what are the general feelings from Illinois fans on Bret Bielema and his staff? Do you see long-term success being sustained in Champaign?

Mihir: There are a lot of fans that are still apprehensive and not totally bought in. The response has been positive, but cautious. The fans know Big Time Tommy (DeVito) will be gone and possibly Ryan Walters, so in the long term, fans still are cautious in the case Illinois regresses to the mean.

I personally see long-term success. In the last two weeks, I had columns to support that. Firstly, Illinois has a great development and S&C program. This allows us to build the second and third teams and mold them into the players we want. Extra bowl practices allow the development guys to get those extra reps. Bielema has always been a devo guy and we see it here.

And secondly, Illinois has been recruiting the state heavily. There are two four-star prospects, one from Simeon in Chicago that decommitted from Cincinnati, and the other from Kankakee that is picking between Michigan and Illinois. Keeping kids in state will be huge in the long term. I don’t think Illinois needs five-stars to be successful. Our staff can make the three-stars look like five-stars when they see the field. Case-in-point, true Freshman outside linebacker Gabe Jacas.

5. At this point, the Big Ten West is Illinois’ to lose. What were expectations from fans and media entering the season, and what are expectations now? How far can this team go?

Mihir: I had Illinois going 8-5 with a bowl win and most of TCR’s staff had us around .500. Most of the media said four wins and even Vegas had the over/under at 4.5 wins. But that’s what a decade of losing does to a fan base. I think the expectations are a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game at this point.

But in all honesty, this team has surpassed all expectations. I wouldn’t be surprised with Illinois going 10-2 with a close game against Michigan. Illinois will do everything it can to not lose to Purdue on Senior Day and there is no way the Illini lose to Northwestern. I think the sky is the limit at this point, we’re playing with house money so let it ride.

Bonus: What is your final score prediction?

Mihir: Illinois wins 30-7. It should be a sellout in Champaign and the players will feed off the energy of the first sellout in six seasons. Illinois stacks the box because the defensive backs can disrupt any pass thrown down the field. With MSU’s lack of a run game, I think moving the ball down the field will be difficult. Payton Thorne is a great quarterback and could get something going in the first few drives. I have always said at least three touchdowns and a field goal wins the game for the Illini, and so far it’s a formula that works.

A big shout out to Mihir for taking the time out of his schedule to provide us with insights and analysis on the Fighting Illini. For more on Illinois, please follow Mihir on Twitter, and give The Champaign Room a follow as well.