An Illini team that was able to maintain its health for a majority of the season has watched the wheels come off in the past couple of weeks. The latest hit may be the biggest as head coach Bret Bielema confirmed Illinois Taz Nicholson will be out the remainder of the year with a dislocated wrist.
Who Will Illini Turn To?
A week after losing backup cornerback Terrell Jennings for the season on the final play of the first half against Michigan State, the Illini will be digging deep in their already limited depth chart to fill in for Nicholson and Jennings. There aren’t many ideal positions, if any, to sustain multiple injuries in succession like this, but cornerback certainly is the most impactful for a team that relies so heavily on it’s defense.
Another injury to keep an eye on is third string corner Tyler Strain. The freshman recorded an interception while filling in for Nicholson, but left the game shortly afterward entering concussion protocol. If Strain can’t go Illinois will either have to slide Quan Martin out from the slot or rely on freshman Xavier Scott who got some decent playing time against the Boilermakers due to the onslaught of injuries suffered.
Crazy Taz Nicholson injury story that Bielema just told:
~Dislocated his wrist, didn’t tell anyone, stayed in the game.
~Finally told a trainer, they immediately saw dislocated wrist.
~Had immediate surgery during the game. Doc who did the surgery was called out of the stands.
— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) November 14, 2022
Exactly what happened is something out of a movie. Playing with a dislocated limb and continuing to make plays for the remainder of the defensive possession, and then pulling the doc out of the stands to perform surgery while the game is still going on? Nuts.
Taz is just one example of grit and selflessness that Bielema has already instilled in the team in his short tenure in Champaign. The Illini are going to need a lot of that in their upcoming matchup in Ann Arbor come Saturday. After dropping Saturday’s game against Purdue they no longer control their own destiny, but losing to Michigan would officially end their bid for the Big Ten West.
Lack Of Depth Finally Catching Up
Illinois moved from a 64% chance and a favorite to win the west division to a 12% long shot. In order to do so they’ll need to win their remaining two games against Michigan and Northwestern while also needing a miracle in Purdue losing one of their final games against Northwestern or Indiana. Not looking good. In order for Illinois to truly remain competitive, especially in the final weeks of the season they had to stay healthy.
This is still a building program, and they just don’t have the experience or talent behind the starters at the key positions. That will eventually take care of itself, but in the mean time it will prove to be the Illini’s Achilles heel.
Despite the current feeling of disappointment it is important to zoom out and look at the big picture of what is going on in Champaign. The Illini are back on the map regardless if they win the Big Ten or not, and their recruiting classes get better by the week.
In the immediate future? If anyone was to tell you this year’s team was to win eight to nine games and be in the running to win the west you’d have fallen out of your chair. I understand the context of where they were two weeks ago vs now, but this season is still a resounding success… as long as they don’t lay an egg against Northwestern.
#illini Bret Bielema: He discussed a redshirt with Josh McCray, but told McCray said he's a good enough player to not need a fifth year (leap into the NFL).
McCray has played 3 games so far this season, can play one more before losing ability to redshirt.
— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) November 14, 2022
Other Injuries of Note
- Seth Coleman will be available after clearing concussion protocol. A huge lift for the front seven that has been struggling of late.
- Pat Bryant is in concussion protocol. More to come as the week moves along.
- Chase Brown and Josh McCray headed in right direction — Bielema hinted at a possible redshirt for McCray who suffered an ankle injury vs Michigan State after being horse-collared. No further news on Brown as is true to Bielema’s fashion in regards to protecting his players when injured.
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