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Illinois visits UVA after an up-and-down start under Bret Bielema
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Illinois visits UVA after an up-and-down start under Bret Bielema

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — With Illinois playing Nebraska the weekend before Virginia kicked off its football season, a number of UVA players watched that game on television. Some gathered together, and others talked about the game on a group text message thread.

“It’s always fun to get that extra week to really prepare and get a good look at them,” said senior cornerback Darrius Bratton.

Illinois opened a lot of eyes with its 30-22 win over the Cornhuskers, though that had as much to do with the disappointing showing by Scott Frost’s Nebraska team as it did the promising start to the Illini’s kicking off the Bret Bielema-era with a Big Ten victory.

Illinois (1-1), coming off a two-win season, was picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten West this season.

“I think our players, our coaches, I think all of college football paid attention,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “What a great start for a coach taking over a program, and to have that kind of exposure and that kind of win, you really couldn’t have scripted it any better, so I think everyone paid attention and saw the capability there.”

The Illini looked far less capable the next weekend, getting beat at home by Texas-San Antonio 37-30. Which Illinois team will show up Saturday morning for the unusually-early 11 a.m. kickoff at Scott Stadium is the question of the week for UVA.

But the Cavaliers are readying themselves for an Illini squad that will play a classic Big Ten brand of football, heavy on power runs and two-tight end sets.

“When you look at the history of their head coach and you look at the successes and then the style, there’s a proven track record there,” said Mendenhall. “So when you’re able to complement and do that and then have strong receivers in addition to a good running game, that makes it more difficult to defend.”

Bielema, who played collegiately at Iowa, went 68-24 in seven seasons at Wisconsin, reaching a bowl game every year in his first go-around in the Big Ten. He found less success when he moved to the SEC, going 29-34 in five years at Arkansas.

Bielema was fired after the 2017 season and spent the past three years as an NFL assistant before making his Big Ten return at Illinois.

It remains unclear who will be behind center for Illinois. Brandon Peters started the opener against Nebraska but suffered a shoulder injury in the first quarter. Rutgers transfer Art Sitkowski took over and is 34 for 58 passing for 390 yards and five touchdowns.

Sitkowski will start Saturday and Peters’ availability will be a game-time decision, Bielema said Thursday. Peters has practiced this week.

UVA co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell said the two quarterbacks have similar skill sets and that the Illini offense doesn’t appear to change much based on which one is in the game. A bigger concern will be the Illinois running attack, led by Mike Epstein and Reggie Love III. That duo has combined for 120 yards during the first two games.

Virginia’s defense opened the season shutting out William & Mary 43-0, holding the Tribe to 94 rushing yards on 37 carries.

During Mendenhall’s first five seasons at UVA, the Cavaliers are just 1-4 in nonconference games against Power 5 opponents.

mbarber@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber

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