Soon after he was hired as Illinois’ head football coach, Bret Bielema hosted a Zoom call for current University students. After addressing the student body, he opened up the virtual floor for questions. I came prepared. With the first question, I asked him, “What role will analytics play in your football program?”
I did not like his answer. He mentioned that Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson was a proponent of analytics, and that he had just been fired. And Bielema made sure to point out that choosing to go for it on fourth down and failing could cost him his job.
The message was clear: Bielema doesn’t care what the analytics say — he’s going to do things his way.
At least he stuck to his word.
On Friday night, with just over five minutes remaining against Maryland, Illinois faced fourth and one at Maryland’s own 40-yard line. With Illinois leading 17-10, Bielema had a decision to make. He could go for it, setting up Illinois to take a two-score lead if the play was successful but running the risk of giving Maryland a shorter field. Or he could punt, forfeiting the ability to score more points but making it slightly more difficult for Maryland to score on its next drive.
The analytics are clear in this situation: Illinois should go for it and attempt to pick up the first down. Not only are the Illini likely to convert with just one yard to gain, but the reward for doing so is massive. Specifically, Illinois would have had an 87% chance to win had Bielema chosen to go for the fourth down, and choosing to punt would make Maryland 1.3 times more likely to win.
But Bret Bielema didn’t care what the analytics said; he was going to do things his way. Even with just one yard to gain on Maryland’s half of the field, he sent the punt team onto the field. But then, in some sort of cruel joke, he moved punter Blake Hayes under center, sparking a glimmer of hope that Bielema wasn’t as cowardly as he made himself out to be. I should have known it was a ruse — Bielema was hell-bent on giving the ball away. Moving Hayes under center was merely an attempt to draw Maryland offside before Bielema took a delay of game to “set up the punt.”
You see, in his Zoom call, Bielema was very aware of the potential consequences of going for a fourth down. If you get stopped, your opponent gets a shorter field and is more likely to score.
On Friday, when asked about his decision, Bielema said, “If we weren’t able to convert it, you’re giving them the ball at the 45-yard line and all the momentum.” All he could think about was the worst-case scenario. He played to not lose instead of to win.
And he never considered the consequences of not going for it on fourth down. If you punt, you lose the ability to score yourself.
Bielema didn’t try to score more points on Friday night. He chose to make Maryland’s ensuing drive 27 yards longer — 27 yards that the Terrapins gained back in three plays, I might add.
But Bielema wasn’t done giving Maryland the ball. After Maryland quickly drove down the field to tie the game (instead of, you know, just cutting the lead to three), Illinois had just over two minutes remaining to tack on a field goal and win in regulation. On his mentality on that final drive, Bielema said, “The first thing I told my coaches was, ‘Let’s go win this game,’ not tie.”
On the surface, I respect that. Be aggressive, and go win the game in regulation without giving Maryland a chance. But you have to know when to pull the plug.
The drive had a promising start, with Illinois converting a first down, but on first and 10 from Illinois’ 36, Brandon Peters took an 11-yard sack with 1:13 left in the game. At that point, Illinois’ expected points on that drive dropped to -0.695 (per Sports Reference), meaning that even though Illinois had the ball, Maryland was more likely to be the next to score. Facing second and 21, Illinois would have been wise to wind down the remainder of the clock and play for overtime. If anything, Maryland should have used a timeout to conserve the clock.
Yet once again, Bielema was determined to give Maryland the ball. He called a timeout, only to see Peters get sacked again. This time, with over a minute still remaining, Maryland called a timeout instead.
Illinois was forced to punt, and with the time Bielema had so graciously conserved for them, the Terrapins drove down the field, setting up a 32-yard field goal attempt. As Joseph Petrino’s field goal sailed through the uprights, Bret Bielema looked on, admiring his work: an Illinois loss.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that this loss was entirely Bielema’s fault. Tony Petersen could have called better plays on offense, Brandon Peters could have shown better pocket presence, the defense could have executed better in the fourth quarter. There’s more than enough blame to go around.
But college football coaches — including Bielema — work tirelessly to find any edge they can get. Hours upon hours are spent poring over film to decide which recruits to offer and how to run a certain play. And yet, when a simple, black and white decision came up, Bielema refused to make the right call. When you’re Illinois football, you simply can’t afford to throw away win probability like that.
Maybe Bielema will find success at Illinois. After all, in college football, all you have to do is recruit well and you’ll win games no matter how bad you are at everything else. But Bret Bielema came to Illinois with the promise of competence. Friday night’s fourth quarter debacle was anything but.