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The importance of establishing identity in season 2

Tough. Smart. Dependable.

I’m a numbers guy. When comparing how coaches compare with each other, I try to dive deep into statistics.

This is the first of many statistical analyses. Let’s jump into the charts. I hope you are as excited as I am.

The first chart I have for you is a radar chart comparing the first-year statistics of Tim Beckman, Lovie Smith, and Bret Bielema.

Some takeaways:

  1. We can see that Bielema, even without his players, is equal to or better than Lovie Smith. Though Smith’s 4th-down and red-zone conversion rates were better, I’d say this is expected, given Smith’s NFL experience.
  2. While Bielema’s team was better than either Smith’s or Beckman’s at earning turnovers, it was also last among the three in turnover margin. As we have repeatedly mentioned, Ryan Walters is doing great on defense. Barry Lunney Jr. needs to stress ball safety in 2022.
  3. Clearly, Bielema’s program is a running team, and QB play is the worst of the three coaches. Illinois hasn’t had a homegrown QB since Nathan Scheelhaase, relying instead on the transfer market. You can’t establish an identity on offense if you continually bring in signal-callers with one year left and nothing to lose. If the Illini want to compete for Big Ten titles again, this needs to be fixed.
  4. Wow, the lasagna man was bad in year 1—even after inheriting a Ron Zook squad coming off two straight bowl wins.
Iowa v Illinois

On charts 2 and 3, we look at the same data as above and compare years 1 and 2 for Beckman and Smith.

Tim Beckman

Moving to year 2, Beckman hired Bill Cubit as his offensive coordinator. Offensive production exploded. Scheelhaase, in his senior year, threw for 2000 more yards and running back Josh Ferguson had a breakout season. The win total doubled from 2 to 4. The Illini had an identity.

Cubit did wonders on the offense and continued that streak into year 3. Led by Wes Lunt and Riley O’Toole, the Illini won 6 games and went to a bowl game in 2013. While the defense never improved and Beckman had issues off the field, the Illini had some sort of identity—a high-powered spread offense.

Lovie Smith

Smith was never a recruiter. But the hire made sense, given that he was a defensive-minded coach and that he inherited players that could play ball on offense. His first year saw a dramatic improvement for the Illini defense, but the offense led by Garrick McGee never saw the same success as it did under Cubit.

In year 2, the offense regressed and the defense got worse. On the bright side, Lovie Smith’s defensive identity emerged, as the Illini improved in interceptions and fumble returns. This was important in the coming years, as Illinois manifested the bend-don't-break Lovie Ball identity into a bowl game two years later in 2019.

Bielema at Wisconsin and Arkansas

In Madison, Bielema took over for Barry Alverez in 2006 and went a stunning 11-1 before regressing in his second year. The Badgers didn’t really find their Bielema identity until year 5 under Bielema, which began a streak of three straight Big 10 championships and three straight Rose Bowls.

Rose Bowl Coaches
Bielema with TCU Head Coach Gary Patterson before the 2011 Rose Bowl.
Photo by Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

I’m going to assume this was due to Bielema still developing as a first-time head coach. There is no denying that the Badgers had success under Bielema (at least according to Illinois standards—our friends over at Bucky’s 5th Quarter might disagree).

At Arkansas, Bielema took his bottom-of-the-pack SEC team to a bowl game in his second season. He was within striking distance of beating #6 Texas A&M, #7 Alabama, #10 Georgia, #1 Mississippi State, and #17 Missouri, losing in OT or by less than a TD. But most importantly, he had a defensive identity—and Barry Lunney Jr. on his offensive staff as Tight Ends coach.

The SEC was tough on Bielema after year 2. The Dan Enos hire as offensive coordinator and departure of defensive coordinator Robb Smith didn’t really help the Razorbacks maintain their “winning in the trenches” identity.

What does this mean for year 2 with Bret Bielema?

Bielema clearly knows all about building identity. For the Illini, it’s already being developed. Coaches know it, players say it in every press conference, and Bielema has made it into a Bielema-ism.




Bielema has a high standard for this identity and wants to build it on both sides of the ball. He laid the groundwork last year. Ryan Walters’s defense showed it in the last nine games of the season, cutting points against in half—from 36 to 18. While Tony Peterson struggled on offense, he was replaced swiftly by Lunney.

Individual players live and breathe the identity and I believe we will see it manifest in improvements across the board in 2022. The groundwork is set, the standard is high, and the team looks to continue building as the season progresses.

I’m excited for Year 2. 8/27 can't come soon enough.

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