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Make no mistake: Bret Bielema’s Illini have arrived

Bottom-dwelling is a thing of the past in Champaign.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

Saturday night’s gutsy win in front of a sea of orange delivered a resounding message: The losing ways of Illinois football are a thing of the past.

Last week, Bret Bielema walked into Madison and brought Illinois its first win at Camp Randall Stadium since 2002. This week, he snapped an 8-game losing streak against Iowa dating back to 2008.

Bielema was hired in large part because of his track record of knowing how to win in the rugged Big Ten West. That’s exactly what we’ve witnessed the last two weeks in statement victories over Wisconsin and Iowa, the kings of the West over the past decade. In turning the tide on these one-sided rivalries, Illinois has used the blueprint that past teams have laid out.

Dominating the trenches and letting a strong defense lead the way.

The nation’s top scoring defense played a phenomenal game once again Saturday night. We’re still waiting for an Illinois opponent to find the end zone at Memorial Stadium this year because it hasn’t happened yet through FOUR games.

While this Iowa offensive unit might be historically bad, Illinois dominated up front as it has every week of the season so far. The pass rush had Spencer Petras under pressure all night to the tune of 5 sacks, with Seth Coleman having perhaps his best game as an Illini tallying 2 of his own and a key QB hit to set up Matthew Bailey’s late interception.

Illinois couldn’t quite hold the Hawkeyes to 2 rushing yards like they did the Badgers, but 52 will have to do. Most of them came on one series in the second half that ultimately didn’t end in points. Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton, your NFL checks will be waiting for you this spring.

And on offense...

It wasn’t pretty, but Illinois did just enough to win the game after losing Tommy DeVito to an ankle injury. The biggest reason for that was the play of the offensive line.

In by far its toughest test of the season against one of the better defensive lines in the country, the Illinois offensive line owned the line of scrimmage, surrendering zero sacks and opening holes for Chase Brown to continue his record streak of 100-yard performances, which now sits at 7.

In previous years, the loss of a starting QB like DeVito was practically a death sentence for Illinois. Now, with the culture of toughness and complementary football that this coaching staff has established, the team is still able to find ways to get it done.

“This team knows how to win,” Bret Bielema said postgame.

That certainly rung true in the 9-6 victory, a perfect encapsulation of the culture change at Illinois.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

Battling Adversity

Adversity didn’t get in the way of the Illini’s will to knock off the Hawkeyes. Not only did they battle for their injured quarterback, but they also erased back-to-back Isaiah Williams fumbles in the second quarter.

Following a muffed punt and fumble by Williams, Iowa started consecutive drives on the Illinois 35- and 5-yard lines. In those two drives, they ran 7 plays for -10, yes negative ten yards, and came away with 3 points.

“I knew it was gonna be a tough moment for him,” Bielema said. “Our guys rallied around him.”

As Illinois’ pursuit for the Big Ten West crown continues, they can move forward with the perfect recipe for success.

A head coach who knows what it takes to win the ugliest of games. A prideful defense that grinds their way to stops at any part of the field. The nation’s leading rusher who provides the offense a high floor in the wake of obstacles in the passing game.

The first four wins were fun, but this one felt like the moment that Bret Bielema and Illinois really made their presence felt both within the Big Ten and nationally — their AP Poll ranking of No. 24 proves as much. This group’s goals extend far wider than a touchdown-less victory, but they’ve already accomplished something that hasn’t been done at Illinois in over a decade and have created visible excitement in Champaign for football each and every week.

Not much time to celebrate it before another huge matchup with Minnesota next Saturday though.

Let’s keep this train rolling.