For the second straight week, Kansas is playing a Friday primetime game. Unlike last week, this one may act as a barometer for what this year’s Jayhawks have in store. Illinois may not be a name brand football program, but it does appear to be one on the rise. Bret Bielema took over in 2021 after years of Illini football landing somewhere between bad and mediocre. Bielema has a strong track record of past success, and after a 5-7 first year, he led Illinois to an 8-5 record including a Reliaquest Bowl appearance last year.
This season got off to a tense start last week for Bielema and Illinois. Defending MAC champion Toledo went to Champaign last Saturday night as 7.5 point underdogs, and very nearly came away with a big win. Toledo led for most of the 4th quarter before an Illinois field goal with 8 seconds on the clock put the Illini ahead for a tight 30-28 victory. Nothing Illinois showed last week was particularly impressive. Quarterback Luke Altmyer was 18/26 for 211 yards, with 2 TDs and 1 INT, while also leading the team in rushing with 69 yards. Running back duo Reggie Love and Josh McCray combined for 23 carriers but just 88 yards against a MAC defensive front, which doesn’t say a lot for the offensive line’s week one performance.
As a team, Illinois was outgained by Toledo, 416 yards to 374. Toledo led in first downs, passing yards, and rushing yards. Each time turned it over one time, so there was no lopsided luck boosting either team. However, while Toledo totaled more yardage, Illinois did average more per play, sitting at 6.13 yards to the Rockets’ 5.27, Illini penalties did weigh them down somewhat, as they were flagged ten total times for 100 yards. Their big issue was keeping drives going when they reached 3rd down situations, where they converted just twice out of eight tries (though they did go 2-3 on 4th down).
The main focal point for Illinois in this game was Altmyer, who doesn’t have a whole lot of game tape from prior seasons, as a first year starter after transferring from Ole Miss. Through his first two years of college football in the SEC, he appeared in nine total games, going 28-54 (51.8%) for 317 yards, 3 TDs, and 3 INTs, while rushing for a total of 3 yards despite 24 rush attempts. That makes it tough to judge exactly what to expect from Altmyer, who fared pretty well in his first start, compiling most of the team’s offensive production both through the air and on the ground. For what it’s worth, 247 Sports had him rated a 4 star transfer prospect coming from Ole Miss this year, and was a 4 star recruit out of high school as well, with offers from Florida State and Alabama, among others. This is a player who at the very least has real potential, and the Kansas line will likely need to try and make him feel uncomfortable early and take advantage of his relative lack of experience.
Defensively, the big standout last week was senior linebacker Tarique Barnes, who racked up 7 total tackles, with 2 TFLs and a sack. As a team, Illinois put up 5 tackles for loss against Toledo, but with no sacks aside from Barnes’ takedown.
Bielema has had a propensity for running the ball at previous coaching stops, and it’s been no different at Illinois, running 59% of the time in year one, and 58% last year. That’s not the best news for the Jayhawks, whose secondary has generally looked better than the front seven in Leipold’s time in Lawrence. I see Illinois try to establish the run, both with their backs and Altmyer, and attempt to control the game that way. It didn’t work very well against Toledo, but we still don’t know if KU’s defense has closed up the gaping holes it repeatedly showed last year, so it could cause problems this week.
With that said, SP+ rates Kansas and Illinois as nearly even opponents, and KU is a 3 point favorite as of this writing. This is a game where I would probably pick Illinois if they were playing at home, but between an unimpressive week one performance for the Illini and Kansas having home field advantage for a primetime game, I think they can grind out a close win.
Kansas 31, Illinois 27