It’s Southern football vs. Big Ten power ball as Virginia invades Illinois for rematch

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Illinois running back Chase Brown (2) leads the country in rushing yards. (Photo: Illinois Athletics)

As far as Tony Elliott is concerned, Saturday’s matchup with his Virginia team at Illinois (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU) is a classic contrast in styles between Big Ten and Southern football.

Illinois (1-1) is a typical Big Ten (West Division) team that believes in power football, control the tempo and the clock and play tough, physical defense. Virginia has a more southern flare like most ACC and SEC teams, not as much power, but rather finesse with dynamic quarterback play, distributing the ball to playmakers.

“I think there’s a different mindset between Big Ten football and then playing Southern football,” Elliott said this week. “It’s going to be a challenge to see — those are always fun matchups because it’s kind of like each have their own style.”

While Virginia pummeled Illinois last season in Charlottesville, scoring 21 points in the first quarter en route to a 42-14 win over the Illini, both teams have changed since that meeting.

UVA has a new head coach, a mostly new coaching staff, and a patchwork offensive line. Illinois has opened up its offense a bit under new coordinator Barry Lunney Jr., and brought in transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito, a former starter at Syracuse.

Still, the Illini depend heavily on the run, primarily with dynamic tailback Chase Brown, who leads the nation in rushing. Brown ran the ball 36 times in a loss to Indiana last week because Illinois doesn’t seem to have healthy depth at the position.

If Virginia can stop the run (the Cavaliers surrendered an unimpressive 170 yards rushing to Richmond last week, 4.9 yards per attempt), and force Illinois to become one-dimensional with DeVito throwing the ball, it would be advantage UVA.

Meanwhile, it will be curious to see how Illinois attacks Virginia defensively. The Illini was committed to stopping Indiana’s run game last week, stuffing the tackle box with defenders as the Hoosiers garnered only 32 yards from its backs on 26 rushes.

Instead, Indiana offensive coordinator Walt Bell said he had never called 52 passing plays in a game during his career until last Saturday. The Hoosiers managed to find a way to win in the end, driving 75 yards on their last possession for a 23-20 victory.

According to Jeremy Werner, who covers Illinois for 247Sports Illinois (see our related podcast on this site for inside scoop on the Illini), defensive coordinator Ryan Walters drastically changed his defense following the loss in Charlottesville last season to adjust to facing playmakers such as UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong.

The changes Walters made were successful as Illinois became one of the best defenses in the Big Ten the remainder of the season, finishing fourth in the conference in scoring defense, giving up only 18 points per game (top 30 nationally).

Brown, who is fast, can also run over tacklers. Defenders cannot attempt to arm tackle him because of his strength and elusiveness.

Brown, who is responsible for 40 percent of the Illini’s offense after two games, had 700-plus yards after contact out of his 1,005 yards rushing a year ago. This season, after two games, of Brown’s 350 yards on the ground, 220 have come after contact.

That’s good old-fashioned Big Ten power football.

By contrast, Illinois must find a way to contain Armstrong and his fleet of elite receivers.

Armstrong lit up the Illini secondary last season for more than 400 yards and five TD passes, and has more receiving threats this season than last with the re-addition of 6-foot-7 target Lavel Davis Jr., who missed last season with a torn ACL.

While Illinois got after Indiana’s quarterback last week with a reported 20 pressures, Armstrong’s accuracy actually sharpened when he was on the run against blitzes last season.

As Illinois coach Brett Beilema said this week of Armstrong: “He’s at his best when everyone else is at their worst.”

Elliott is hoping that’s the case Saturday should things break down in UVA’s protection, and help Elliott’s case that Southern football is king.

For a complete statistical matchup of this game, see our Wahoo Preview Game 2 here; and listen to an in-depth podcast about Illinois’ strength and weaknesses here.