Illinois defense locks down Virginia for 24-3 victory
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Chase Brown rushed for 146 yards on 20 carries, Tommy DeVito threw for 196 yards and two scores and the Illinois defense stifled Virginia’s once-potent attack to lead the Fighting Illini to a 24-3 victory on Saturday.
Things looked dicey for Illinois (2-1) after DeVito threw an interception on his first pass attempt of the day and when Brown fumbled after a first-down run.
However, a dominant defense cleared the path to victory as the Illini held Virginia (1-1) to 1 of 16 on third-down conversions.
“This was a big statement to me about where we were a year ago to where we are now,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “Obviously, they’ve got new coaches and everything, but the majority of a lot of there players were there, some of ours are back and I wanted to see where we are as a program.”
Cornerback Devon Witherspoon shined with seven tackles and three pass breakups and defensive end Keith Randolph came up with 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and seven tackles.
DeVito bounced back to complete 17 of 25 passes, including 39- and 2-yard touchdown throws to tight ends Michael Marchese and Tip Reiman, respectively, to help the Illini take a 21-3 lead into halftime.
“We have a lot of trust in everybody that’s out there, but to see them flourish and really be able to move the chains, get some touchdowns and keep that going was awesome,” DeVito said.
True freshman Matthew Bailey put Illinois ahead 7-3 by recovering a muffed punt that bounced into the end zone for a touchdown with 5:38 left in the opening quarter.
“I had goosebumps everywhere, to be honest,” Bailey said. “Running, looking at 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 flat out beat us on 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 shouldered the blame for a “rough day at the office” in his first loss and first road trip as a head coach.
“Hopefully this will be the catalyst that sparks us to make sure that we don’t take anything for granted,” Elliott said. “I also said last week, especially after halftime of the (Richmond win) offensively, ‘Don’t look at the stats.’ We have a lot of room to improve, we’ve got to get better and can we handle success? Offensively, we did not handle success well.”
Bailey and safety Kendall Smith intercepted Armstrong twice in the fourth quarter to halt a pair of Virginia drives.
Illinois converted on 5 of 14 third-down attempts and out-gained Virginia by 172 yards.
The defense bailed Illinois out repeatedly as Ryan Walters’ crew allowed just three points off four first-half turnovers. Virginia gained 11 yards on two drives that started in Illinois territory after takeaways.
“Defense gave us the ball in plus territory twice,” Armstrong said. “What else could you ask for?”
Bielema credited his defense for standing up the Cavaliers when put in some precarious positions.
“When we threw that first pick, to me, that’s a defensive opportunity,” Bielema said. “We want to put out a fire and they did that exact deal.”
Caleb Griffin tacked on a 23-yard field goal in the third quarter for Illinois.
Don’t look now, but Illinois might finally have a capable quarterback after cycling through mediocre and subpar talent at the position over the last decade.
“Any way shape or form, I have to find a way to give the team a chance to move the ball and keep the sticks moving on third down,” DeVito said.
DeVito has completed 67% of his passes for 622 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions through three games.
Those numbers are a massive improvement for a program that hasn’t seen a quarterback surpass 2,000 passing yards in a season since Wes Lunt threw for 2,761 yards in 2015.
Elliott has a talented quarterback and capable receivers, but the Cavaliers will need to improve along its offensive line throughout the season to compete in the ACC.
He said he would have to “challenge the staff, myself and the players” to make sure Virginia can right the ship before conference play begins with away games at Syracuse and Duke.
“All the things I saw in the game are correctable,” Elliott said. “It’s just a matter of making sure throughout the course of the week that you have a right mindset from a preparation standpoint. Understand that the separation is in the preparation.”
The Illini look like they won’t be a pushover in a Big Ten West division that saw normal front-runners like Wisconsin and Iowa lose on Saturday.
Brown and DeVito have breathed new life into the offense and the defense has held Wyoming, Indiana and Virginia to a combined 29 points.
Virginia: The Cavaliers welcome Old Dominion to Scott Stadium next Saturday.
Illinois: The Illini have a bye next week before hosting FCS opponent Chattanooga on Thursday, Sept. 22 in Champaign.