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Bret Bielema’s first year at Illinois was an interesting one

The 2021 season featured an Illini team that was always improving, in spite of frustrating setbacks.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois Fighting Illini have now finished the 2021 regular season with a 5-7 record, and as of the publication of this article, they’re still technically eligible to be selected for a bowl game based on APR. All in all, it’s not a bad accomplishment for first-year head coach Bret Bielema, and it sets his tenure off on the right foot.

As I watched the 2021 season unfold from Week 0 to the finale against the Northwestern Wildcats, I noticed this team gradually improve in different areas as the season went along. It may sound odd, but that’s not something we’re accustomed to associating with Illinois football teams.

Usually there’s an abrupt change during a season in one direction or another (6-0 to 0-6 in 2011; 2-4 to 4-2 in 2019), but this was the only season that I recall seeing gradual improvement from the team from beginning to the end. Each month saw the Illini grow and encounter setbacks in different ways, and that’s how I feel it’s best to organize this review. But ultimately, the 2021 Illinois team was at its best at the end of the season, and that’s an important testament to this coaching staff.

It’s not worth dwelling too much on the Aug. 28 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Illinois’ win over them would turn out to be the story of their entire season: one-possession losses to conference opponents in games that came down to the wire. I could not be more thankful that the Cornhuskers are keeping Scott Frost in Lincoln for another year. Poor coaching is holding that program back, and all the better for Illinois if it takes more time for the Huskers to figure that out.

September

NCAA Football: Illinois at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Of greater importance to understanding the season as a whole is the painful 0-4 stretch from UTSA to Purdue. During these games we saw a frustratingly sluggish offense and a defense that was still finding its rhythm.

The offensive issues wouldn’t be figured out until later in the season, but the defensive improvement after the road loss against the Virginia Cavaliers was certainly impressive. After surrendering 37 points to UTSA and 42 to Virginia, the Illinois defense wouldn’t give up more than 33 points to any opponent, even ones significantly better than Illinois’ non-conference opponents, throughout the rest of the season. The improvement was certainly due in large part to Ryan Walters’ coaching acumen.

One particular adjustment involved Walters deciding to move on from Derrick Smith at defensive back. Smith, who entered the transfer portal earlier this month, filled the stat sheets with tackles against UTSA and Virginia, but his coverage skills simply weren’t getting the job done. Walters largely replaced Smith’s minutes with junior Kerby Joseph, who turned out to be a revelation for the Illini and one of the best defensive backs in the country by the end of the season. Joseph started against the Maryland Terrapins, and the improvement in the secondary was almost immediate.

But of course the Illini still lost to both Maryland and Purdue, despite holding them to 20 and 13 points respectively. Bret Bielema certainly deserves some blame for questionable late-game coaching decisions, but he never would’ve been in those situations had the Illini offense just scored another touchdown in either game. I try not to channel Tim Beckman with these hypotheticals too often, but scoring at least 21 points in conference games shouldn’t be too tall of a task against peer-level opponents.

These offensive woes continued to vex Tony Petersen, and solutions remained elusive.

October

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The victory over the Charlotte 49ers was a much needed palette cleanser for the Illini, and Chase Brown’s breakout performance with 257 rushing yards was an important step in his emergence this season.

But Illinois faced its worst loss of the season in the following week against the Wisconsin Badgers. With Brandon Peters injured, the Illini offense was lost against the Wisconsin defense. Both Peters and Art Sitkowski combined for 11 completions on 34 passing attempts, culminating in an abysmal 67 passing yards on the day. Clearly playing from behind all day factored into the play calling, but Petersen would focus significantly more effort on the ground game in subsequent matchups. That focus on the rushing attack would prove to be pivotal, and it would come out in full force against the Penn State Nittany Lions.

In Illinois’ historic upset of Penn State this season, Sitkowski had only 19 passing attempts in the entire game, as opposed to his 27 attempts against Wisconsin. And on the ground, Chase Brown’s 223 rushing yards were the most ever by an opponent in Happy Valley, while Josh McCray also burst onto the scene with 142 rushing yards.

Unlike the upsets against Wisconsin and Michigan State in 2019, Illinois didn’t just sneak up on the Nittany Lions late in the game. Instead, the Illini statistically dominated No. 7 Penn State from start to finish. Illinois had 357 total yards in regulation against 227 for Penn State, and held onto the TOP advantage 36:25 to 23:35. For reference, the Nittany Lions were holding opponents to an average of 110 rushing yards per game coming into their matchup with Illinois.

Looking back from the end of the season, this game is still the most important win of the year for a number of reasons. First and foremost, beating a top-ten ranked team on the road is never a small feat, no matter if you’re Alabama or Illinois. For example, the Big Ten East Division Champion Michigan Wolverines are only 2-9 against any ranked opponents on the road under Jim Harbaugh. Bielema would finish the year 2-1 against ranked opponents on the road.

Beyond the surface value of the win, this game was also the roadmap for how Bret Bielema plans to win at Illinois: control the football and wear out opponents on the ground. It’s a simple yet effective strategy, but it depends on an experienced offensive line and elite running backs. The latter seems set for the next few years at Illinois, but the former will likely be an issue sooner rather than later.

Recruiting new offensive line prospects and transfers for the coming seasons will be a necessity, but it’s made much easier when the coaching staff has blocking highlights against a top-ten defense to sell to potential recruits. Recruiting pitches are much more effective when a coach is selling something he’s done, rather than simply a vision.

Obviously a strong defense was also crucial to Illinois’ success against Penn State. The Illini held a Nittany Lion offense comprised of mostly 4-star and 5-star recruits to just 18 points. The defense was able to force three-and-outs and get off the field quickly, which is another common thread among Illinois’ wins this season. Unlike Lovie Smith’s defenses, which focused on generating turnovers, Bielema and Walters started to use more aggressive blitzing schemes to stop teams on third down, and then count on the offense to eat up the clock.

Naturally, the rollercoaster of the 2021 season swung the other way for the Illini the following week, as Chase Brown was held to 75 yards and Illinois lost another close and low-scoring affair at home, this time to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Greg Schiano clearly studied up on Illinois’ win over Penn State, and tried to beat the Illini at their own game. The Scarlet Knights out-rushed Illinois 242-115, and Brandon Peters simply couldn’t beat the Rutgers defense through the air despite going 14-of-19 for 190 passing yards and two touchdowns.

November

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois’ game in Minneapolis against the No. 20 Minnesota Golden Gophers seemed like another tough matchup, especially since PJ Fleck has historically had Illinois’ number. But this time, Bielema’s formula for success worked again. Peters only needed to pass the ball nine times on the day, as a healthy Chase Brown rushed for 142 yards.

By this point in the season, the defense had really started to shine, and interceptions by Joseph and Tarique Barnes kept the Gophers offense off the field, while as a whole Minnesota only converted 3 of 13 third-down situations. Ryan Walters had pitched a gem, and he would be recognized the following week with a well-deserved contract extension.

Much like the Penn State win, the victory over Minnesota also has substantial recruiting value. Fleck (among others) had badly out-recruited Lovie Smith for in-state recruits, to the point that Lovie essentially gave up on in-state recruiting entirely. With this win, Bielema can now more effectively counter Fleck’s recruiting pitches when vying for in-state talent.

Illinois’ loss at Kinnick Stadium against the now Big Ten West Division Champions Iowa Hawkeyes was frustrating given how close the Illini kept the game throughout, but Illinois’ inability to get anything going in the rushing game was crippling. The defense had a (by this point) rare bad game, and were unable to stop Tyler Goodson and Gavin Williams on the ground. Peters was forced to air the ball out as Illinois played from behind, and went only 16-of-36 with two touchdowns and two costly interceptions.

If the Penn State and Minnesota games had shown how Illinois could win games under Bret Bielema, then the Rutgers and Iowa games had shown how opposing coaches could effectively game plan against them. By staying ahead and forcing Peters to throw, opponents could minimize Chase Brown’s effectiveness and tire out the Illini defense by generating turnovers and three-and-outs. In the chess game that is college football, it’ll be up to Bielema to close off that weakness in 2022 since opposing coaches will certainly recognize it.

Fortunately, the season ended on a high note with Illinois playing their most complete game yet against the Northwestern Wildcats. Much like Chase Brown against Penn State, Isaiah Williams had a statement game against Northwestern, in which he caught seven passes for 134 total yards and two touchdowns. Highlight reel moves like this are sure to keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.

The defense also put up a phenomenal performance, as seniors like Isaiah Gay (five tackles, 1.0 TFL) and Tony Adams (eight tackles, 1.0 TFL) picked apart the Wildcat offense, and younger players like Keith Randolph, Tarique Barnes, and Kerby Joseph also pitched in on the effort.

It may sound like a broken record at this point, but the recruiting value of this resounding victory over Northwestern can’t be denied. It’s much harder for Coach Fitz to sell that his program is on the rise compared to Illinois with a 33-point blowout loss looming in the background.

What’s Next?

Going into 2022, the most pressing concerns will be on the offensive side of the ball. Notably, Bielema will need to find a new starting quarterback and almost an entirely new starting offensive line. Art Sitkowski may not be healthy in time for the beginning of the season, while Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe, Jack Badovinac, Blake Jeresaty, and Alex Palczewski will leave massive holes in the line. The offensive line issue must be addressed in the offseason, as Bielema’s entire strategy of establishing a dominating ground game depends on effective blocking upfront. Julian Pearl, Alex Pihlstrom, and Zach Barlev have all shown flashes of potential, but they’ll need to be substantially reinforced next season.

Defensively, the future seems fairly set. Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson will be complemented by the return of Calvin Hart Jr., who shined in the Nebraska game before suffering a season ending injury. The defensive line is in good hands with Keith Randolph Jr., Jer’Zhan Newton, Calvin Avery, and Sed McConnell, but the secondary will need to replace Tony Adams’ production.