Sound the alarms.
Illinois’ first four games were ugly, mistake-filled, and flat out underwhelming, but seemingly showed enough flashes that a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel remained.
In Saturday’s beatdown in West Lafayette, things went pitch black.
Against a team that came into the game lost and preaching patience under its first-year head coach, Illinois was the one that left the stadium looking like the program at the start of a rebuild.
How on earth did we get here?
Coming off an 8-win season and the most program momentum in over a decade, nobody could’ve imagined that things would’ve gotten this bad. This was supposed to be a Big Ten West contender. Somehow, even with the division’s putrid current state, it looks likely to be a bottom feeder.
The simple fact is that this group is undisciplined and sloppy. Week in and week out, we’re talking about drive-killing penalties, bone-crushing turnovers and just an ugly brand of football overall.
Those things came up again in Saturday’s loss. Nine penalties for 83 yards and a devastating Luke Altmyer strip sack that flipped the game on its head. A wide-open touchdown completely missed by Altmyer. Another that’s dropped into Pat Bryant’s hands and not hauled in.
Beyond that, Illinois just can’t seem to find an ounce of consistency on either side of the ball.
The offense is a tough watch. The Illini actually rank 7th in the Big Ten in yards per game with 375, but that’s led to just 12th in points per game with 21.6. As it feels like Bret Bielema has mentioned in every single press conference this year, there’s just no identity with Barry Lunney’s group and after five games, it’s still unclear what they’re trying to accomplish each time they take the field.
The offensive line is a disaster. It almost defies logic that a unit that brings three starters back from a Joe Moore Award finalist can look this overmatched in every single game. You wouldn’t have known that Ryan Walters’ Purdue defense came into Saturday’s game as the worst in the conference because they were in Luke Altmyer’s face on every drop back and moving the ball seemed like a chore.
The performance was good enough to finally lift the Boilermaker defense out of the cellar. The Big Ten’s new 14th ranked defense? Illinois. 14th in yards per game (419.4). 14th in points per game (30.6).
Now, the caveat is that the Illini have played a far tougher slate of offenses than many and the offense has done its counterpart no favors with its turnovers and overall ineptitude.
Regardless, going from first to last from a pure numbers standpoint is disgraceful. The vaunted defensive front is not nearly as disruptive the names on the back of the jerseys indicate they should be. An inexperienced secondary is showing flashes but are being tested often and unsurprisingly, getting beaten often.
This is a dire point for Bret Bielema.
He’s rightfully earned plenty of trust and respect from the fanbase. He’s proven to be a strong leader and it’s apparent that he takes building this Illinois program seriously.
But whatever these five games have been cannot happen in Year 3. Not with the pieces that returned. Not after an 8-win season. Not in the conference’s final year before four successful programs enter, divisions go away and the path to success for programs like Illinois becomes even more difficult.
Change needs to happen and it needs to happen fast. As many of my colleagues on this site and I have discussed ad nauseam, the schedule provides ample opportunities for this team. Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, and Northwestern have all looked dreadful in one way or another.
Problem is those teams are saying the exact same thing about Illinois. It’s on Bielema, the rest of the staff and the players to feel the urgency and salvage as much as possible out of this season.
Because even though October just started, time’s already beginning to run out.
Let’s finish with Week 5’s five stars, a very difficult exercise after a performance like that.
1. Isaiah Williams
A successful Illinois offense is one that puts the ball in Isaiah Williams’s hands as much as humanly possible.
I-Will eclipsed 100 yards for the third time in five games, finishing the afternoon with six catches for 113 yards.
Both of the Illini’s touchdown drives were set up by long Williams receptions — one for 49 yards in the second quarter and another for 38 yards in the fourth.
Isaiah Williams gets separation, gets the reception, and goes for 49 total yards. He wasn’t running out of bounds either. He was going for a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/0SFJsfy2FH— Illinois Football Focus (@IlliniFB) September 30, 2023
Williams is now the Big Ten’s leader in both receptions (30) and yards (446).
2. Kaden Feagin
Feagin got the biggest opportunity of his young career on Saturday and impressed once again, finishing with 11 carries for 85 yards (7.1 YPC).
He’s shown all the makings of a four-star prospect and the future featured back in this Illinois offense.
Kaden Feagin 19 yard run pic.twitter.com/WwmlaiQTiB— Illinois Football Focus (@IlliniFB) September 30, 2023
That development may not need to happen very far in the future.
Feagin has undoubtedly earned more reps in an offense that has been utterly inconsistent running the football. He’s got the burst and explosiveness of a lead back while also showing off some power and short yardage ability backed by his 250-pound frame.
More No. 3 please.
3. Dylan Rosiek
First time all season an inside linebacker and appeared on this list.
Rosiek was one of the few bright spots on the Illini defense in Saturday’s contest. He was flying around the field, finishing with six tackles, two tackles for loss, and forcing the Illini’s only turnover on a second quarter forced fumble.
At a position that largely struggled overall, Rosiek has built up the most trust from Aaron Henry and company. He’s been the snap leader among inside linebackers in two of the last three weeks and the eye test has indicated that he’s more than deserving.
4. Caleb Griffin
Griffin deserves a lot of credit. He waited four years for his opportunity to start and has battled inconsistency throughout his two years as the Illini kicker.
Despite it all, Bret Bielema has stuck with him and Saturday, that resulted in his career-long field goal: a 53-yarder to end the half.
That should have been a massive kick, drawing the Illini within three at the half and halting the Purdue momentum. Unfortunately, as we all know, the Boilermakers dominated the third quarter about as much as you can dominate a football quarter and the rest was history.
Tip of the cap to Griffin though for drilling that one.
5. Illini Fans
For spending three and a half hours of your beautiful Saturday watching that on Peacock.