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‘Just didn’t execute’: Illinois to fix miscues ahead of Virginia rematch

Time to bounce back after a tough loss.

Bret Bielema leads his team out on Friday night in Bloomington.
Brad Repplinger // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Last weekend’s game was a nail-biter, and it did not go the Illini’s way.

A last-second Indiana touchdown gave them the 23-20 victory, causing most spectators to scratch their heads: How did the Illini come up short?

On Monday, head coach Bret Bielema, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. had their weekly press conference at Memorial Stadium to discuss the loss and how they’ll move forward before playing Virginia.

Fixing mistakes

Illinois was seemingly in complete control in the second half at Indiana, but mistakes continued to plague the team, as turnover after turnover in Indiana territory kept the Hoosiers within striking distance. Bielema knows that can't be the case moving forward.

“Before we can start winning games, we have to stop losing them,” Bielema said.

Whether it was losing the turnover battle, dropping passes, or giving up long passing plays, the Illini shot themselves in the foot way too often against Indiana.

On what became the most crucial play of the game, the Illini decided to go for it on fourth down on Indiana’s 1-yard line, and that failure encapsulated the problems for Lunney’s offense.

“We just didn’t execute,” Lunney said. “It’s one I’d like to have back.”

Both sides of the ball played well at times — but when it came down to it, the small things prevented the Illini from winning a game they should’ve.

“When you do lose, you have to learn from it,” Walters said. “If we get in these situations again, we’ll be prepared for it.”

What didn’t go the Illini’s way

Midway through the second quarter, the Illini were in the redzone when QB Tommy DeVito threw a lob into the endzone for WR Brian Hightower, and what ensued became the most controversial call of the football weekend.

A Hightower catch was called incomplete by the referees, taking 7 points off the board and forcing the Illini to settle for a field goal (remember — Indiana won by 3).

Hightower texted Bielema after the game, telling him that he knew he made the catch.

“He sent me a text saying, ‘Coach, I wasn’t lying to you. I caught that ball,’” Bielema said.

That was not the only questionable call the Illini faced in the game either.

In the third quarter, DeVito was looking for Brown out of the backfield on a screen play and the pass was broken up by an Indiana defender. The throw was called a backwards pass on the field by the referees, resulting in a Hoosiers recovery and the fourth Illini turnover of the game.

“At the end of the day it’s about execution,” Lunney said. “I have to do a better job of putting my players in better positions.”

Perhaps if those calls go in the Illini’s favor, they escape Bloomington with a win, but we can only speculate.

Looking on to the Cavaliers

Last year, the Illini made a trip to Charlottesville and took on Virginia. That game was not pretty, and it’s one we’ve all forgotten (hopefully).

They’re looking for revenge in this matchup on Saturday, and will come into the game with some fire after the heartbreaking loss in a game that got away.

“We don’t just have a chip on our left shoulder,” Bielema said. “We have one on our right shoulder too.”

The Virginia Cavaliers come into Saturday’s game at 1-0 after a 34-17 victory over Richmond. The Illinois coaching staff knows this Cavalier offense, led by quarterback Brennan Armstrong, will not be an easy one to stop.

“He’s experienced; he understands coverages,” Walters said. “He’s dual threat; he can extend plays with his legs and can go score when he breaks the pocket.”

The receivers on Virginia are going to be a challenge for Walters’ defense as well, but he know his guys will be ready.

“I’m confident in our guys,” Walters said. “[The Virginia receivers] are very long and athletic on the perimeter, but we’ve got some scrappy guys.”

Regardless of the results from last year, the Illini will use the tough loss at Indiana as extra fuel to propel them through the Cavaliers on Saturday.

“Those coming to the game on Saturday are going to see a very motivated football team,” Bielema said.