The Illinois defense closes Virginia for the win

CHAMPAIGN – Chase Brown rushed for 146 yards on 20 carries, Tommy DeVito threw for 196 yards and two scores, and the Illinois defense suppressed Virginia’s once-powerful offense to lead the Fighting Illini to a 24-3 victory on Saturday.

Things looked perilous for Illinois (2-1) after DeVito threw an interception on his first pass attempt of the day and when Brown was clumsy after a first-down run.

However, a dominant defense paved the way to victory as the Illini held Virginia (1-1) to 1 of 16 on conversions in third.

“This was a big statement to me about where we were a year ago to where we are today,” said Illinois coach Bret Bielema. “Of course they have new coaches and stuff, but the majority of a lot of their players were there, some of us are back and I wanted to see where we are as a program.”

Cornerback Devon Witherspoon shone with seven tackles and three pass breakups and defensive end Keith Randolph came in with 2.5 tackles for losses, a sack and seven tackles.

DeVito rebounded, completing 17 of 25 passes, including 39- and 2-yard touchdown throws to Michael Marchese and Tip Reiman, respectively, to help the Illini take a 21-3 lead at halftime.

“We have a lot of confidence in everyone out there, but to see them bloom and really be able to move the chains, get some touchdowns and keep that going was amazing,” DeVito said.

True freshman Matthew Bailey gave Illinois a 7-3 lead by recovering a muffled punt that bounced into the end zone for a touchdown with 5:38 left in the opening quarter.

“To be honest, I had goosebumps all over,” Bailey said. “Running, watching all the fans, the band…it was a crazy feeling.”

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong struggled to find his receivers, completing just 13 of 32 passes for 180 yards with two interceptions. He threw for 405 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-14 win against the Illini in 2021.

“They just beat us at every one-on-one, that’s all I can really say,” Armstrong said.

Cavaliers running backs combined for 42 rushing yards on 29 carries.

Brendan Farrell put Virginia ahead in the first quarter with a 42-yard field goal for the Cavaliers’ lone score.

Virginia’s Tony Elliott was blamed for a “tough day at the office” during his first loss and first road trip as head coach.

“Hopefully this will be the catalyst that pushes us to make sure we don’t take anything for granted,” Elliott said. “I also said last week, especially after the half of the (Richmond win) offensive, ‘Don’t look at the stats.’ We have a lot of room to improve, we need to get better and can we handle success? Offensively we didn’t handle success well.”

Bailey and safety Kendall Smith intercepted Armstrong twice in the fourth quarter to stop a few Virginia drives.

Illinois converted on 5 of 14 third-down attempts and won Virginia by 172 yards.

The defense repeatedly saved Illinois as Ryan Walters’ crew allowed only three points on four turnovers in the first half. Virginia gained 11 yards on two runs that started in Illinois territory after takeaways.

“The defense gave us the ball in plus area twice,” Armstrong said. “What more could you ask for?”

Bielema has credited his defense with resurrecting the Cavaliers when they were placed in some precarious positions.

“When we threw that first pick to me, it was a defensive opportunity,” said Bielema. “We want to put out a fire and they did exactly that.”

Caleb Griffin scored a 23-yard field goal in the third quarter for Illinois.

DEVITO DELIVERY

Don’t look now, but Illinois may finally have a capable quarterback after cycling into the position over the past decade through mediocre and subpar talent.

“In whatever form, I have to find a way to give the team a chance to move the ball and keep the sticks in third place,” said DeVito.

DeVito has completed 67% of his passes for 622 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in three games.

Those numbers are a huge improvement for a program that hasn’t seen more than 2,000 passes in a single season since Wes Lunt threw 2,761 yards in 2015.

THE TAKE OUT

Elliott has a talented quarterback and capable receivers, but the Cavaliers will need to improve their offensive line throughout the season to compete in the ACC.

He said he should “challenge the staff, myself, and the players” to make sure Virginia can straighten things out before the conference game kicks off with away games in Syracuse and Duke.

“All the things I’ve seen in the game can be corrected,” Elliott said. “It’s just a matter of making sure you have the right mindset over the course of the week from a preparation standpoint. Understand that the divorce is in preparation.”

It looks like the Illini won’t be a pushover in a Big Ten West division that saw normal frontrunners like Wisconsin and Iowa lose on Saturday.

Brown and DeVito have revived the offense and the defense has kept Wyoming, Indiana and Virginia at 29 points.

NEXT ONE

Virginia: The Cavaliers welcome Old Dominion to Scott Stadium this Saturday.

Illinois: The Illini have a farewell next week before hosting FCS opponent Chattanooga on Thursday, September 22 in Champaign.

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