CHAMPAIGN – There are many days in which it hasn’t been a lot of fun to root for the orange and blue on the gridiron over the last generation.
But that’s not the case in 2022, because Illinois football is enjoying a renaissance through the first seven games of the season, playing a level of football not seen in Champaign in decades.
The team enters their bye week at 6-1 and ranked 18th in the country, their highest since the 2011 season, and at the moment sits at the top of the Big Ten West division. Not bad for a team that entered the campaign with rather modest expectations, but five-straight wins have changed the narrative and expectations of the program.
Second year head coach Bret Bielema has a lot to feel good about his team as they head for the bye and prepare to face Nebraska on October 29th. Here are some of the highlights of the team early in the season.
Junior running back Chase Brown is currently at the top of the rushing charts in college football and could very well be a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate if he continues his strong performance.
He’s currently at the top of FBS with 1,059 yards rushing and is the only running back at that level who has gone over 1,000 for the season. That included a 180-yard performance in this past Saturday’s win over Minnesota at Memorial Stadium.
For his efforts, Brown was named the Big Ten’s Co-Offensive Player of the Week.
Illinois’ defense is arguably the best the program has had in almost three decades as they continue to lead FBS in points allowed with just 8.86 per game.
They’re also tied for second in takeaways in the division with 17 – 12 on interceptions and five on fumble recoveries. Four members of the defense – linebacker Gabe Jacas, defensive backs Jartavius Martin and Devon Witherspoon along with lineman Johnny Newton – were all named to at least one midseason All-American team this week.
These efforts have already earned Illinois a spot in a bowl game for the first time since 2019, which for many was the ceiling for the team before the season.
But thanks to a drastic rise in play in Bielema’s second campaign in Champaign, a number of possibilities remain for the Illini as the 2022 season continues.