In his second year as head coach, Bret Bielema got the Illinois Fighting Illini back on track and into a bowl game with an 8-5 record. With high expectations heading into this season, Bielema will lead an Illinois team onto the field Saturday with quite a few new faces. Year three of the head coach's tenure begins with a home game against the Toledo Rockets, who feature one of the better rosters in the MAC conference.
Defense was the calling card of the 2022 Fighting Illini, as they finished 2nd in average points allowed and 4th in average yards allowed per game. The problem with having a good defense one year is that you’ll likely lose your defensive coordinator and star players, which is exactly what happened to the Illini. Three of the team's star defensive players are now in the NFL, which leaves defensive linemen Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph to lead the team on that side of the ball.
The Illinois defense won’t be the only part of the team that looks different come Saturday. After Tommy DeVito led the Illini offense last season, a new signal caller will take the reigns this year, as Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer will be under center. Atlmyer will take over a run-heavy offense that was 77th in EPA per play last season and will also feature new primary running backs in Josh McCray and Reggie Love III.
While Illinois will be led by a first-time starter, their opponent, the Toledo Rockets, roll out one of the best QBs in G5 football. DeQuan Finn is the leader of the Rockets' offense, and he can torture opposing defenses with his throwing and running ability. In 2022, the signal caller threw for 2,260 yards and 23 touchdowns while also rushing for nine touchdowns as well. That production resulted in the Rockets being ranked 38th in average points per game.
Toledo has big expectations in the MAC this year, and while a lot of that comes from Finn, the Rockets also had a strong defense in 2022. By the end of the year, the Rockets were 28th in the country in average yards allowed per game (342.7) and 17th in opponent passing yards per game (191.8).
The total for this week one matchup is set at 45.5, and I’ll be taking the over for my play. Last year’s Illini defense was imposing, but that will be difficult to replicate this season. The new defensive group at Illinois will be challenged immediately with an up-tempo offense that features an experienced dual-threat quarterback who will line up with his top running back and receiver from last season.
Not only will Finn have receiver Jerjuan Newton, who had 830 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, but he will also have two power five wide receiver transfers to throw to. This is a tall task for the Illini defensive back room since they took the biggest hit in terms of returning production.
Offensively for the Illini, they may have a first-year starter in Altmyer, but he brings a level of explosiveness that the offense lacked last season. Altmyer also has dual-threat capabilities, and he’ll be helped by an experienced backfield that should be able to take advantage of a Rockets defense that was 60th in rushing yards allowed per game last season. While Toledo may have been a stronger defense in the MAC last season, the over is still 5-3 in their last eight non-conference games, excluding bowl games.