CHAMPAIGN — Redemption can be a powerful motivator.
Illinois football coach Bret Bielema used it to his advantage before his Fighting Illini took on the Virginia Cavaliers at Memorial Stadium.
Bielema kept showing his team a video of Virginia players dancing and celebrating during the Cavaliers 42-14 win in Charlottesville, Va., last season.
“I showed them specifically a play where the Virginia sideline did that,” Bielema said. “There was a play late in the fourth quarter where I watched a whole group get together. That had stuck in my mind, because I had taken that mental picture and I couldn’t shake it.”
Virginia was the one left watching the celebration on Saturday as the Illinois defense recorded five sacks, nine tackles for loss and forced three turnovers in a 24-3 victory for the Fighting Illini.
“That was a big statement to me about where we were a year ago to where we are now,” Bielema said. “Obviously, they’ve got new coaches and everything, but the majority of their players were there and some of ours are back. I wanted to see where we are as a program compared to that day.”
Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who threw 405 yards and five touchdowns a year ago against Illinois, completed just 13-of-32 passes for 180 yards on Saturday.
His biggest problem was finding time to throw as the Illini defensive front finished with five sacks and six quarterback hurries. Leading the charge for Illinois was defensive end Keith Randolph, who had seven tackles, a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss — including one in the final minutes to keep the Cavaliers (1-1) out of the end zone.
“They were moving the ball toward the end zone late in the game, and I was like, ‘hold on’ because I left my helmet on the other end of the bench because I thought we were done,” Randolph said. “And now they were on the 3-yard line, so I took off sprinting and asking the coach ‘come on, put back in.’ And he did.
“It was great. It’s something that I’ll never forget, honestly.
And while that last drive was Virginia’s best opportunity to score a touchdown, it wasn’t the only time the Cavaliers had the ball deep in Illini territory.
Illinois (2-1) actually turned the ball over three times in the first half including its first two possessions with a Tommy DeVito interception and a Chase Brown fumble.
But the best that Virginia could do with those opportunities was a 42-yard field goal by Brendan Farrell, that gave the Cavaliers a 3-0 lead just 3 minutes, 58 seconds into the first quarter.
“When we threw that first pick, to me, that’s a defensive opportunity,” Bielema said. “We wanted to put out the fire and that’s exactly what we did.”
According to Bielema, it’s all about having the right attitude.
“There have been moments of flash and positivity but it’s kind of us against everyone,” he said. “When you’re in a position that we are at right now, we have to not only beat our opponents, we have to beat everything else … we have to perform at a level that’s above the expectation for us to get the respect that we want to get. We not only have to have a chip on our left shoulder, we probably have to have one on our right shoulder.
“I want this program to be respected and today, hopefully, was a step in the right direction.”
While DeVito bounced back to throw for 196 yards and pair of touchdowns and Brown rushed for 146 yards on 20 carries, two other big contributors for Illinois on Saturday were freshman.
True freshman defensive back Matthew Bailey, a 6-2 defensive back from Moline, recovered a muffed punt in the end zone that put Illinois ahead 7-3. He also recorded his first-ever interception in the second half.
“I had goosebumps everywhere, to be honest,” said Bailey about scoring his first-ever collegiate touchdown. “Running, looking at the fans, the band and my teammates — it was a crazy feeling.”
The other freshman that had a big day was Gabe Jacas, a 6-foot-3 outside linebacker from Port St. Lucie, Fla, had two tackles for loss and two sacks.
“When he first got here, me and him went to work out,” said Randolph. “We go in there and do our workout, and I’m like, ‘man, this kid’s got something.’ We worked on some moves. Now, I can’t say his sacks were because of me, but we worked on some moves and I’m like ‘this kid’s good.’
“I’m so excited for his future.”
Illinois has a bye this weekend and the next game for the Illini will be Sept. 22 at home against Chattanooga. Kickoff is set for 7:30 pm at Memorial Stadium.