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As Illinois Prepares for the ReliaQuest Bowl, Here’s What You Need to Know About the Illini – NBC Chicago

There were certainly hopes that the Illinois Fighting Illini could show some progress under head coach Bret Bielema’s regime during the 2022 football season, but few expected the team to show such dramatic strides as they finished the campaign with eight victories and a berth in the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl against Mississippi State.

The eight victories were their most in a season since 2007, when they won nine games and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl under former head coach Ron Zook.

As the Illini prepare for their bowl game in Tampa, here are some notes on what the team accomplished this season, and how they got to this point.

-The Illini got off to a good start to the campaign with a Week 0 win over Wyoming, and after a tough loss to Indiana they reeled off six consecutive victories to run their record to 7-1.

Their aspirations of reaching the Big Ten title game took a massive hit after that, with three straight losses to Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan.

They went into the final week of the regular season with an outside shot at clinching a West Division title, but despite a victory over Northwestern, they were denied that chance when Purdue defeated Indiana.

As a result, Illinois finished 8-4 on the season, with a 5-4 conference record and a second-place finish in the Big Ten West.

-After reeling off six consecutive wins, including road victories over Wisconsin and Nebraska, the Illini were No. 14 in the Associated Press poll in late October. That represented their highest placement on that ranking since 2007, when they ascended to No. 13 in the nation.

 -Illinois’ season made them bowl-eligible for just the second time in the last eight years. It also guaranteed that they would finish with a winning record for the first time since 2011, when they finished 7-6 after winning the Fight Hunger Bowl.

-The big story for the Illini was their incredible defense, which finished as one of the top-ranked units in the entire country.

They gave up the fewest points per game in the nation, surrendering just 12.3 per contest. They also finished second in the country in yards against per game, giving up 263.8 yards per game.

-The big star for Illinois’ defense was defensive back Devon Witherspoon. He is the program’s first consensus All-American since 2011 when defensive end Whitney Mercilus earned that honor. He is now one of 21 players in the history of the program to earn that distinction.

Witherspoon’s incredible season will also earn him a permanent place in Illinois lore. Grange Grove, located on the western side of Memorial Stadium, features plaques dedicated to the consensus All-Americans that have played for the Illini.

Witherspoon will be the first player added to that group since Grange Grove was completed in 2015.

-Several other players stood out on the Illinois defense during the 2022 season, including Sydney Brown, who finished second in the nation with six interceptions. He was named to the All-Big Ten first team, along with Witherspoon.

-Defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton was named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press after accumulating 14 tackles for loss, including a team-leading 5.5 sacks.

-Of course, Illinois’ offense had its own star, as running back Chase Brown racked up 1,643 rushing yards on the season, ranking him second in the nation. He earned second-team All-American honors from the Associated Press.

That number is currently good for third all-time in Illinois history, but if he plays in the ReliaQuest Bowl, Brown could potentially surpass the 1,697 yards that Mikel Leshoure put up in 2010.

Brown has 3,206 career rushing yards with the Illini, putting him second in program history behind Robert Holcombe’s 4,105 yards.

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