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Bielema on 5-1 start: ‘I knew these things were coming’

The stakes only keep getting higher.

Jack Jungmann // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois just picked up its first win over Iowa since 2008 in very dramatic fashion.

With a 5-1 start to the season, expectations are higher for this team than they have been in more than a decade.

In wake of this hype surrounding the team, the Illinois coaching staff addressed the media in their Monday press conference ahead of Saturday’s matchup with Minnesota.

Injury Bug

Even though the Illini got the win Saturday night, it came at a cost.

A handful of key players went down in the game, highlighted by two of the offense’s main weapons: starting QB Tommy DeVito and receiver Isaiah Williams.

The two stars were unable to return to the game, but the biggest question Illini fans want answered is DeVito’s status heading into Saturday’s game.

The extent of DeVito’s injury is still unknown, but head coach Bret Bielema shared some optimistic news about all his injured players.

“I don’t think any of them will be season-ending,” Bielema said. “The majority of those guys should all be back in time for our return after the bye week.”

If Williams can’t go, expect younger guys like Hank Beatty and Miles Scott to step up.

“I don’t have any qualms with either one of those guys,” said offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. “We got about a six- or seven-man rotation going at wide-out, and I feel comfortable with all those guys.”

The coaches implied that they will be preparing for the game as if Williams and DeVito cannot suit up.

“I don’t know how realistic it is for any of them to be in this week’s game plan,” Bielema said.

Regardless, none of the coaches made it clear on Monday who we will see taking over this offense for the Homecoming game — but Lunney reiterated the importance of preparation for backup QB Art Sitkowski regardless of DeVito’s status.

“We can build and manipulate the plan around [Sitkowski] all week,” Lunney said.

Bielema was asked if he expects Sitkowski to be the starter on Saturday and gave a real simple response.

“Good try,” Bielema said with a smile.

Only time will tell who will be under center.

No. 24 Ranking

Great play comes with more national recognition.

After a 5-1 start to the season, Illinois thrusted itself up into the AP Top 25 on Sunday — listed at 24th.

The ranking is the program’s first since 2011, and the 5 wins through 6 games marks the best start to a season since the 6-0 start that same year.

“Winning effects everything,” Bielema said.

While it’s exciting to see the Illini ranked, the coaches aren’t very focused on this achievement.

“I don’t think a lot of us have thought much about that,” Lunney said. “But when it did come out, I think everybody had an appreciation for that.”

Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters also spoke about the hype surrounding the team. While he admitted it feels good to be recognized, his defense is only moving forward.

“How can we get better everyday, that’s the focus,” Walters said. “Still got a lot of work to do.”

Rematch Four

It’s safe to say these games have gone very well so far, but this one is going to be a little different.

Illinois will be welcoming Minnesota to Memorial Stadium on Saturday — a team who it beat 14-6 a season ago.

“They’ll give their best effort,” Walters said. “I’m sure they’ll have tweaks and wrinkles from what we did a year ago.”

Illinois is 3-0 in these ‘rematch games’ so far, but Minnesota is just the first of the four teams that they beat a season ago.

With these circumstances flipped, the Gophers will come in with their own appetite for revenge — adding another level of difficulty for the Illini.

Minnesota comes into the matchup with the second-lowest points allowed per game in the country (8.8), right behind Illinois (8.0).

“[It’s] another very quality defense in our league that we’re facing,” Lunney said. “It’ll be a great challenge for us.”

Riding a four-game win streak into Saturday’s matchup, the Illini cannot look back and try to use the past games’ success as a driving factor.

“What we did or didn’t do last week has no bearing on what’s coming up on Saturday,” Lunney said.

Illinois’ unexpected success in the first half of the season gives them a chance to clinch a bowl berth after only 7 games. A win on Saturday could also put them in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten West.

“This is going to be a big game because we’ve made this a big game,” Bielema said.