What: Wyoming Cowboys @ Illinois Fighting Illini
When: Saturday, August 27th, 2022 - 2 p.m. MT
Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois
Stream: Big Ten Network
Line: Wyo +10 , O/U 44
Series: N/A (first time matchup)
Welcome back and happy Week 0!
The 2022 Pokes are set to debut their season tomorrow as they take on the B1G conference’s Illinois Fighting Illini. The Illini and Cowboys have had similar offseasons unfold as both squads saw a handful of players depart due to the transfer portal, graduation, and other various professional endeavors this offseason. Their 2021 seasons were reminiscent of each other’s as well with both teams finishing in the bottom half of their respective conferences, while their 2022 outlooks have drawn plenty of comparisons as well. Some of those similarities include a strong ground attack, stout defense, and plenty of uncertainty at QB. Additionally, we will see a familiar face on the opposing sideline as the Illini Offensive Line coach happens to be former Cowboy OL coach Bart Miller.
So what does all this mean for the game?
What to expect from Illinois:
Illinois will go into battle Saturday afternoon following a 5-7 season in which they did not qualify for a bowl. It was Bret Bielema’s first season as head coach, and though they didn’t have very high expectations coming into last season, they were still able to get into more of a groove at the end of 2021 and muster up five wins that include victories over Minnesota and Penn State, in one of college football’s most competitive conferences.
So who are they returning and who will be brand new for the blue and orange?
Fans, meet quarterback Tommy DeVito. No, he’s not related to famous actor Danny DeVito - he’s actually a much, much different person. The 6’2” 210 lb. grad transfer from Syracuse will be leading an Illinois offense that averaged an abysmal 20.17 ppg last season, good for 115th in all of college football. And yes, scoring in the B1G isn’t easy, but no one likes to see that kind of a lack of production from their offense. Needless to say, DeVito will be tasked with changing that fortune alongside returning playmakers such as lead pass-catcher Isaiah Williams, returner Casey Washington and up-and-comer Pat Bryant. The Pokes will also have to deal with the two-headed monster of Chase Brown and Josh McCray at tailback, who wreaked havoc and rushed for over a combined 1500 yards in 2021. The Illini did lose a few key players at TE and OL, but there are still a few players who do show promise up front with their impressive size and ability, giving hope for their offensive production if things fall into place at the skill positions, which is still anything but a given.
As for the defense, that’s where the real strength lies for Illinois. The Illini showcase a defense that was 29th in the nation in points allowed per game in 2021 and even show potential for an upgrade this year. There are also plenty of experienced players still on the Illinois defensive roster which could very well lead to that improvement, despite not having much depth in some areas. Losing crucial players such as Safeties Kerby Joseph and Tony Adams will almost surely affect the pass defense and turnover numbers, but the starting experience with Seth Coleman and Calvin Hart Jr. at linebacker will help the Illini maintain a pretty staunch run defense that was pretty decent against the run last year.
Expect the Illini to come out with a new energy. Let’s hope the Pokes can match it.
What to expect from Wyoming:
Much like Illinois, the Wyoming Cowboys saw plenty of turnover this offseason, and most of you who follow closely probably know that by now. No, we won’t see Xazavian Valladay, Levi Williams, Chad Muma or Isaiah Neyor run out on the field for the Pokes this weekend, but we will see a ‘new look’ offense with plenty of eager energy, as well as a disciplined, physical defense take the field for Coach Bohl and his staff, ready to put last year’s tumultuous season in the rearview mirror.
So what does that entail? And who is to lead the charge this season?
Enter Utah State transfer QB Andrew Peasley (probably). With Coach Bohl yet to make a final decision at QB, this is who we are expecting to start. Peasley is the only quarterback on Wyoming’s roster with relevant Division 1 experience and has shown plenty of leadership and cohesiveness with his teammates all camp long. If Peasley is the one to lead the Cowboys out on the field in Week 0, expect that leadership to be one of the things on display. However, with QB1 being far from locked down up to this point, his play will determine how long he stays as their number one.
As for the rest of the offense, the Cowboys will return a slew of familiar faces and welcome some new ones. Standout running back Titus Swen saw plenty of playing time in 2021, rushing for over 750 yards and 7 TDs on 132 carries. The Pokes will look to his physical run style to carry the load on offense. But, he won’t be doing it all, as Wyoming typically does have at least two RBs who share the load offensively. Look to redshirt freshman Joey Braasch to get some important reps this weekend, as well. There will also be plenty of experience returning at O-line, a group that the Cowboys typically consider a strength. Frank Crum will lead that charge alongside sophomore Nofoafia Tulafono, who will be taking over at center. As far as pass-catchers are concerned, Peasley should be looking toward a few returners with redeeming qualities such as WR Joshua Cobbs and, with the season-ending injury to Gunnar Gentry, Wyatt Wieland. It’s a new-look offense, but it’s one that sure did need a makeover.
Defensively, linebacker Easton Gibbs will be sliding over to the middle, filling in the Chad Muma role. Coach Bohl has raved about his growth and IQ. He will lead a group that lost plenty of players to the portal but also landed some much-needed help at DB with some intriguing transfer players including Deron Harrell (Wisconsin) and Jakorey Hawkins (Ole Miss). NT Cole Godbout will be returning once again, providing some consistency to the middle of the Cowboy front, and returning players like Devonne Harris and Oluwaseyi Omotosho will be getting amplified opportunities to harass opponent backfields this season too with the departure of others.
Game prediction & betting picks:
Now - I’ve heard plenty of storylines for this matchup. Most of them detail a low-scoring defensive slugfest with the Illini walking away easily. I don’t see things that way. Debuts are never easy, and to think this is going to be a walk in the park given all the turnover on both sides of the ball for both teams, just doesn’t make much sense to me. Yes, Wyoming is young, but they have too many players with starting spots on the line. I think that provides some extra motivation for these guys. Illinois will be a tough ask, especially in Champaign, but I think it’s too late to go back on my prediction of an upset in my @OffTackleEmpire segment.
Why not be optimistic? It’s week 0 for cryin’ out loud! Gimme the Pokes to cover and win, because I truly believe it can happen, despite what they’ll tell you.