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Previewing Virginia football’s Saturday morning clash against Illinois

Can the Cavaliers build off their resounding Week 1 win?

<p>Illinois is a more formidable opponent for Virginia and to secure a win, the Cavaliers must hold their own on all sides of the ball this Saturday.</p>

Illinois is a more formidable opponent for Virginia and to secure a win, the Cavaliers must hold their own on all sides of the ball this Saturday.

After a 43-0 drubbing of William & Mary last Saturday, Virginia moves on to face Big Ten foe Illinois. The Cavaliers (1-0, 0-0 ACC) may be a bit confused — as is the rest of the college football world — as to what to make of the Illini (1-1, 1-0 Big Ten). Illinois started off the season with a bang, defeating Nebraska 30-22 in a game where it built up a 21-point lead on the back of backup sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski. The era of first-year Coach Bret Bielema seemed to have started off with a bang, but Illinois came crashing back down to Earth with a 37-30 defeat at home to UTSA. Sitkowski once again had a solid game, but the defense struggled mightily, allowing the Roadrunners to score three rushing touchdowns. Now, Virginia and Illinois meet for the first time since 1999 in a game that could very well determine who both teams really are.

Players to watch:

Illinois freshman wide receiver Isaiah Williams

The heralded recruit has been a nightmare for opposing secondaries, with Williams already catching 14 passes on the season. While not the biggest player on the field, Williams has a knack of finding holes in any defense he plays. It would be in the Cavaliers’ best interest to keep him in check, providing the first real text for Virginia’s secondary. Last week, William & Mary mustered just 89 passing yards, but the Tribe’s plan was more focused on the rushing attack. With Illinois, however, nearly 65 percent of its yardage came through the air against UTSA, meaning Virginia faces a much different challenge than on Sept. 4. It all starts with Williams on the receiving front, so how his day goes may be an omen for the outcome of Saturday's matchup for both teams.

Virginia junior tight end Jelani Woods

Among the several transfers Virginia brought in during the offseason, Woods was seen as the one who could make the most immediate impact on the squad. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Woods can be a matchup problem for even the best defenses, as there are very few players at the college level who boast both his size and athleticism. It was concerning, then, to see that the tight end did not make much of an impact during the William & Mary game, catching just one pass for five yards. Woods did leave with an injury, though, which may have precluded him from being more active in the season opener. Against Power 5 competition, the Cavaliers may need Woods to be able to step up and make the incredible plays he was said to have produced during spring and fall camp.

Keys to the game

Extend plays on offense

As was mentioned in the Virginia football schedule preview, Illinois now plays an aggressive style of man defense, which can open up lanes for the opposing quarterback to scramble for first downs if needed. This result was especially present in the Illini’s game against Nebraska, where Cornhusker junior quarterback Adrian Martinez rushed for over 100 yards. The Cavaliers happen to be in an advantageous position with junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who fits in the mold of Bryce Perkins as a dangerous dual threat athlete. If Armstrong can evade the Illinois pass rush during passing downs that are well covered, he can use his ability to take advantage of the wide open holes in the defense created by playing man. In addition, sophomore linebacker Calvin Hart, Jr. was lost for the season last week during practice, meaning the middle of Illinois’ defense will be even more vulnerable than anticipated. If Virginia is able to turn quarterback runs into positive plays all night, it will greatly increase the chance of victory.

Limit explosive plays on defense

If there was a single flaw that could be pointed to on Virginia’s 2020 squad, it was the ability — or lack thereof — to stop the deep ball. The Cavaliers repeatedly had promising defensive drives killed by a long post route or run breaking through the middle. It appeared that the pitfall had been cleared up for 2021, as William & Mary only had one play go for longer than 20 yards. But Illinois is a step up in competition, and with that comes new challenges, such as keeping Williams in front of the Virginia defense. The Cavaliers are very good at making sure short pass and run plays do not pass the sticks, but the next step is to eliminate the plays over the top. If Virginia defenders can keep up with Illini skill position players, it should bode very well with a second win in a row at Scott Stadium to open up the season.

Kickoff at Scott Stadium is set for 11 a.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network

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