DeVito, the Illini passing attack ignited in a 31-0 rout of Chattanooga

CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema changed offensive coordinators after one season at Illinois to boost a porous passing attack.

By halftime of Thursday’s 31-0 rout of Chattanooga, Illinois passed for more yards (249) than it had in all but one game last season. By the end of the game, Illinois passed for 335 yards, the most in three years.

So, yeah, the move to hire Barry Lunney Jr. seems to be paying dividends for Illinois (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten), which on Thursday wrapped up an undefeated non-conference slate for the first time since 2011.

Tommy DeVito completed 23 of 31 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns before getting pulled late in the third quarter, the most yards for an Illinois quarterback since Brandon Peters passed for 369 in a wild comeback win at Michigan State in 2019.

Illinois had two 100-yard receivers for the first time in a game since 2016 Pat Bryant had a career-high six receptions for a career-high 112 yards and a touchdown and Isaiah Williams had nine receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown.

NCAA-leading rusher Chase Brown (108 rushing yards, 1 TD) also set an Illini record by topping 100 rushing yards for a fifth-straight game for Illinois, which is now 18-0 all-time against FCS opponents.

The Illinois defense again was dominant — limiting Chattanooga (3-1) to 142 total yards — and notched the Illini’s first shutout since 2015. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters‘group has not allowed a touchdown in three home games at Memorial Stadium. Mocs quarterback Preston Hutchinson completed just 6 of 18 passes for 49 yards and two interceptions.

Illinois had nine quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss, four sacks and two takeaways, an interception each for Quan Martin and Keith Randolph.

Illinois used a five-play, 64-yard opening drive to take a quick 7-0 lead on a Chase Brown nine-yard touchdown. A 34-yarder Caleb Griffin field goal increased the lead to 10-0 late in the first quarter.

DeVito then capped a masterful nine-play, 80-yard drive early in the second quarter on a flea flicker 25-yard touchdown pass to Michael Marchese. Bryant then scored on a 17-yard touchdown pass with 5:52 left in the second quarter to give the Illini a 24-0 lead at halftime.

Williams then busted a 63-yard catch and run touchdown late in the third quarter to give Illinois a 31-0 lead before playing mostly backups during the fourth quarter.

What it means: Illinois may still rue that loss at Indiana, but the Illini enter the second third of its schedule at 3-1, giving itself a real shot at a bowl bid. More importantly, this team is playing like a bowl team. The defense and running game are top-notch once again, but the passing game is also much-improved and gives the team more balance. While the schedule gets much tougher starting next week, the Illini have just one ranked opponent currently on the schedule — No. 4 Michigan — and have plenty of opportunities to win games and build program momentum.

Star of the game: Pat Bryant is the deep-play threat Illinois has needed, but Tommy DeVito gets the honor for one of the best Illini quarterback performances of recent memory. The Syracuse grad transfer has been a steady, accurate point man in Lunney’s offense. He completed passes to nine different Illini wideouts and made mostly great decisions in the RPO game. Through four games, he has completed 68.8% of his passes for 951 yards and nine touchdowns to two interceptions.

Statistics of the game

  • Bret Bielema (8-8 overall record) is the first Illini coach to start .500 through his first 16 games since John Mackovic.
  • Illinois notched its first shutout since a 44-0 win over Western Illinois on Sept. 12, 2015.
  • Illinois had a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers in the same game for the first time in program history.
  • Illinois had 500 yards of total offense for the first time since a 2018 loss at Nebraska.
  • Illinois has only allowed nine points in three home games this season, not allowing a touchdown.
  • Chase Brown is the first Illini to record five straight 100-yard rushing games.
  • Illini sophomore Pat Bryant (112 yards) topped his career-high in receiving yards by 52 yards
  • Tommy DeVito completed passes to nine different receivers
  • This is the first time in the Bielema era that Illinois has won back-to-back games and it’s the first 3-1 start since 2015.

Don’t overlook: The Illini defensive front has the potential to be the best in more than a decade at Illinois. The 2015 group was very good (Dawuan Smoot, Jihad Ward, Chunky Clements and Carroll Phillips), but Keith Randolph, Johnny Newton, Calvin Avery, Seth Coleman and Gabe Jacas have been dominant all season and were again on Thursday.

What’s next: Bret Bielema will return to Madison to coach for the first time since he surprisingly left Wisconsin after leading the Badgers to back-to-back-to-back Big Ten titles from 2010-12. Bielema, who spent nine seasons in Madison (seven as head coach), has downplayed the personal feelings of his return throughout the last few months to focus on the importance of this game for his team. The Badgers have continued their Big Ten West success since Bielema left and again were voted the favorite to win the division, thanks to a strong rushing attack led by the sophomore Braelon Allen and another elite Jim Leonhard-coached defense. The Badgers (2-1) lost at Washington State and are big underdogs this weekend at No. 3 Ohio State.

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