UTC's QB Hutchinson attempts a pass against Eastern Illinois
Source: UTC Athletics
FCS

Chattanooga at Illinois Preview and Prediction

UTC will look to become the eighth team from the FCS ranks to beat an FBS opponent as they head to Memorial Stadium to take on the fighting Illini Thursday

John Hooper
John Hooper

Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022

Champaign, Ill./Memorial Stadium (60,670)

Chattanooga (3-0, 1-0 SoCon) at Illinois (2-1, 0-1 Big Ten)

8:30 p.m. EST (Big Ten Network)

Game Preview

Chattanooga will have a short week coming off of what was an impressive 41-14 win over North Alabama last Saturday, as the Mocs head to Illinois to take on the Illini in a key game for the Mocs and a big opportunity for the Southern Conference.

The Illini enter the contest with a 2-1 record this season, which includes a 0-1 mark in Big Ten play. The Illini have posted wins over Wyoming (W, 38-6) and Virginia (W, 24-3), while the one lone loss for the Illini this season came in a 23-20 setback to Indiana to open Big Ten play.

The Mocs remain unbeaten to this point, having posted a pair of non-conference wins over both Eastern Illinois (W, 38-20) and North Alabama (W, 41-14), while also recording a Southern Conference win over Wofford (W, 31-0) to open the 2022 season.

The Mocs, who will be facing off against Illinois for the first time in series history, will be looking to become the second team from the FCS ranks to knock off an FBS foe from Prairie State this week, have been ranked in the FCS Top 25 since the start of the season and came into the season as the consensus Southern Conference favorites. The Mocs will be looking to join Southern Illinois from the FCS in being able to knock off a team from the Big Ten, as the Salukis were able to claim a 31-24 win over Northwestern this past weekend.

Illinois comes into Thursday night’s clash being led by head coach Bret Bielema, who is in his second full season leading the Illini football program, and helped guide Illinois to a 5-7 overall record in his first season as the head coach, which included a 4-5 record in Big Ten play.

With the Illini’s 2-1 start to the 2022 season, Bielema now owns a 7-8 record as the head coach of the Illinois football program. The Illini are a perfect 17-0 all-time against FCS competition. Illinois came into the 2022 season picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the Big Ten West Division.

Though the Illini and Mocs have never met on the college football gridiron, the two have met three times on the college basketball hardwood, with the most recent coming this past March in the NCAA Tournament, with the Illini coming away with a 54-53 win in the opening round.

It was the Illini’s first win over the Mocs on the college basketball hardwood, with Chattanooga having claimed both of the previous meetings between the two on the college basketball hardwood, which includes a Round of 32 win over the Mocs in the 1997 NCAA Tournament.

The Mocs are led by head coach Rusty Wright, who is in his fourth season leading the Chattanooga football program, having posted an 18-13 record as the head coach. He’s looking to lead the Mocs to their first Southern Conference title since 2015, and their eighth overall. Chattanooga has made four FCS playoff appearances, with the last of those postseason appearances coming in the 2016.

Chattanooga comes in being led on the offensive side of the football by the reigning Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Week Preston Hutchinson (50-of-76 passing, 752 yds, 5 TDs, 2 INTs) at quarterback. Hutchinson leads a Mocs offense that comes in averaging 36.7 PPG (19th in FCS) and 435.7 YPG (19th in FCS).

Hutchinson has plenty of weapons at his disposal, with all-conference running back Ailym Ford (60 rush att, 331 yds, 4 TDs, 5.5 YPC) to hand the ball off to. Ford is made even more versatile by the fact that he is also a receiving threat coming out of the Mocs backfield, having hauled in five passes for 109 yards and a pair of scores, averaging 21.8 yards-per-catch.

Sam Phillips (8 rec, 146 yds, 0 TDs, 18.3 YPR), Jamoi Mayes (9 rec, 99 yds, 1 TD, 11.0 YPR) and Javin Whatley (6 rec, 105 yds, 1 TD, 17.5 YPR) have proven to be the leading receiving threats for the Mocs so far in 2022.

The Mocs have for the past few seasons had among the best offensive lines in all of FCS football, and this season is no different. McClendon Curtis anchors the Mocs offensive line at left tackle, having made the move from offensive guard to offensive tackle just before the start of the season.

In last spring’s NFL Draft of course, the Mocs had offensive guard/tackle Cole Strange drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots, which marked the highest draft pick for the SoCon since 1974.

Curtis figures to compete for the SoCon’s prestigious Jacobs Blocking Award this season, while he is joined up front by four sophomores, which includes Malone VanGorder at left guard. VanGorder is the son of former Georgia Southern head coach and former Notre Dame, Georgia, Louisville, Atlanta Falcons and Bowling Green defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Even more impressive is how stellar the Mocs have been on the defensive side of the football for the better part of the last 12 seasons on the SoCon gridiron, having ranked in the top three at season’s end in total defense, leading the league in total defense in seven of those campaigns, respectively.

The Mocs are once again dominant on the defensive side of the football entering Thursday night’s contest against the Illini, as UTC comes in surrendering just 266.7 YPG (10th in FCS) and only 11.3 PPG (6th in FCS).

Leading the way on the defensive side of the football is a player that is as good as any defensive lineman at either the FBS or FCS level of Division I college football, in senior defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell (8 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks).

Maxwell has drawn plenty of attention from the opposition from the outset of the season, and with that focus having been placed so much on Maxwell, it has allowed others to break through and put up some big numbers this season.

The attention focused on Maxwell has allowed defensive lineman Ben Brewton (8 tackles, 3.5 TFl, 3.5 sacks, 2 FFs, 1 FR) and edge rusher/outside linebacker Jay Person (11 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 QBH) have been the beneficiaries of that attention focused on Maxwell.

The Mocs come into the contest ranking second in the SoCon in total sacks (10), and have talent at all three levels, which includes all-conference linebackers Ty Boeck (25 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR) and Kam Jones (16 tackles), while the secondary is anchored by cornerback CaMiron Smith (9 tackles, 1.0 TFL).

Illinois has made even more progress under second-year head coach Bret Bielema. The key coming into the season was improving an offense, which came into the 2022 season looking to improve on a 2021 unit that ranked as one of the worst in FBS last fall, as the Illini completed the campaign ranking 112th overall in the FBS in total offense (329.8 YPG) last season.

Illinois has relied on a steady dose of Chase Brown (75 rush att, 496 yds, 2 TDs, 6.6 YPC) out of the backfield this season, and that has been the primary source of the Illini’s offense during the 15-game tenure that Bret Bielema has been the head coach.

Bielema made a change at the offensive coordinator position following the lackluster performance of the Illinois offense last season. The Illini ranked 54th nationally (439.3 YPG). The new offensive coordinator for the Illini this season is Barry Lunney Jr., and so far so good for the new and improved offense.

Lunney’s lynchpin has been Brown. The senior running back is rushing the ball in record-setting fashion, and will be the stiffest challenge the Mocs stout ground defense has faced this season.

Brown has rushed for 2,411 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, while hauling in 36 passes for 305 yards and a touchdown. He is the first running back in Illinois history to rush for 150 or more yards in the first three games of the season.

Leading the new and improved Illinois offense under center this season has been quarterback Tommy DeVito (65-of-97 passing, 622 yds, 6 TDs, 2 INTs ), who seems to be for the first time comfortable leading the Illinois offense since transferring in from Syracuse.

DeVito’s favorite targets in the passing game include Pat Bryant (7 rec, 147 yds, 1 TD, 21.0 YPR) and Brian Hightower (10 rec, 88 yds, 1 TD, 8.8 YPR). The Illini have done a nice job of utilizing three different tight ends this season, with all three having totaled at least three receptions apiece this season.

Isaiah Williams (19 rec, 157 yds, 1 TD, 8.3 YPR) has been the leading wideout for the Illini over the previous two seasons, as he came to Champaign as a quarterback. Williams was able to set career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (112) in the Illini’s only loss of the season, which came at Indiana.

Luke Ford (5 rec, 24 yds), Michael Marchese (3 rec, 53 yds, 1 TD) and Tip Reiman (5 rec, 42 yds, 1 TD, 8.4 YPR). The trio of receiving threats at tight end show that the Illini aren’t shy about throwing to what are some outstanding tight ends. Ford was one of five returning starters on the offensive side of the football for the Illini heading into the 2022 season.

As you might expect, the offensive line is an area that is close to the heart of head coach Bielema. A couple of starters highlighted the returnees along the offensive front for the Illini coming into the 2022 campaign, with both right guard Alex Palczewski and right tackle Julian Pearl being the two most veteran returnees along the offensive front for the Illini.

Palczewski comes into Thursday night’s clash with 55-career starts, which is tied for second in Big Ten history. He was a 2021 All-Big Ten honorable mention selection after starting seven games at offensive tackle and five at offensive guard for Illinois last season.

The defensive unit for the Illini has been stout this season, as Illinois enters the matchup with the Mocs ranking 15th in the FBS in scoring defense (10.3 PPG), while also ranking 12th nationally in opponent third down conversion percentage (23.9%), and 17th in the FBS in total defense (265.3 YPG).

The Illini came into the 2022 season with six starters returning, and have solid talent at all three levels. The leader along the defensive front for the Illini are a pair of talented defensive ends, in senior Keith Randolph Jr. (17 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) and sophomore Jer’Zhan Newton (13 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks), who were both All Big Ten honorable mention selections in 2021.

Inside linebacker Tarique Barnes (7 tackles, 2.5 TFL) is the most veteran returnee to the unit, as he was only one of four starters returning to the unit from the 2021 season. Calvin Hart Jr. (6 tackles) had his 2021 season cut short due to injury, but appeared to be in line for a strong season prior to suffering a season-ending injury.

The secondary was the most experienced unit for the Illini entering the 2022 season, returning three regulars from a year ago. Safety Sydney Brown (14 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 FF, 2 passes defended) was an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection a year ago, leading the Illini in tackles.

Devon Witherspoon (15 tackles, 1 INTs, 7 passes defended) and Jartavius Martin (15 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 5 passes defended) give the Illini a pair of experienced veterans at cornerback. Both are excellent at coming up and making tackles in one-on-one situations against the run and wide receiver screens on the perimeter.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

I have said since the beginning of the season I thought the Mocs were good enough to win this game. I stand by that prediction, however, I think it will benefit the Illini that they didn’t play a game this past Saturday, but I think the Mocs head to Champaign and pull out the shocker.

Chattanooga 24, Illinois 21