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Syndication: Journal-Courier
Illinois football needs to pray for a miracle.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

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We may have been wrong about this Illinois team

It is embarrassing.

Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!

It is well. (It is well.)

With my soul. (With my soul.)

It is well, it is well...with my soul!

Dammit. Illinois football is back to being the same ole Illinois football, and maybe even worse than it was before it was temporarily not Illinois football in 2022.

You’ve probably sang “It Is Well” at some point in your life. At the very least, you’re familiar with the lyrics, and the overall message of positivity and/or the advantageous mourning perspective.

I chose this particular song for a particular reason.

Illinois being dreadful at football and getting trounced is homeostasis for my soul. Some think pumpkin spice lattes and falling leaves signal the beginning of fall.

For me, it’s a below .500 record and misery on the couch come Saturday.

Not only was I wrong about the 2023 Illinois football team, and maybe more importantly, HBC Bret Bielema, this is the most wrong I’ve ever been about an Illini team in the 35+ years actively watching the university compete.

Syndication: Journal-Courier
Illinois QB Luke Altmyer fumbles the first six points into the endzone in the first quarter of Week 5. Illinois handed Purdue a minimum of 17 points, objectively in the embarrassing blowout loss, 44-19.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you’ve been reading my writing over the past couple of seasons, you’ll notice a pattern. I see things on the field, or court, and try to give an honest assessment of what we’ve seen so far, and provide educated hypotheses on what is to come in the future.

I’m not always right, sometimes I am. More times than not, I do pretty well predicting what is coming down the pipeline.

Through five games, Illinois is now 2-3, and essentially is two plays away from being winless. The heroic fourth down conversion in Week 1 at home against Toledo is the ONLY THING keeping this team from a 1-4 start to the season.

Here is my colleague, Pleas Honeywood, with a rapid-fire reaction to the debacle in West Lafayette yesterday.

Publications will print retractions when they are factually wrong about a story, or recognize that the information they passed along was either wholly inaccurate, or a name was used incorrectly. It happens from time to time.

There is no logical reason to print a retraction on a column, because it is based about 75%, or more, on personal opinion and subjective prognostication.

No one knows what a bomb will do. It’s unpredictable.

My wrongness on the Illinois football team this season is so egregious, preposterous and outrageous, even the great litigator Jackie Chiles would be stunned. It’s lascivious, salacious, outrageous.

An apology won’t do. That’s just words on a page.

Let’s simply look what has gone wrong for Bielema, and his two coordinators - Barry Lunney, Jr. (OC) and Aaaon Henry (DC).

I promised myself that I wouldn’t dig into the situation too much, for fear of what the discovery of facts may lead to, but here we are.

Let’s take a look at the offense. It’s not great, by any stretch of the imagination.

Syndication: Journal-Courier
Altmyer going on long runs when things break down is legitimately the best option that the Illini have to gain big chunks.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Read the above caption. To quote the greatest band of all time, “Sad but true.”

How did we get almost halfway into Year 3 of the Bret Bielema regime, yet these areas are at least as poor as Year 1, when the big man arrived in Champaign. Let’s also identify the overriding and overarching issues with each facet.

According to the Big Ten Network, Illinois has the 6th most efficient offense in the conference, at 127.4. The Illini are sandwiched between Purdue (129.9 at No. 5 and Rutgers (126.9) at No. 7.

For reference, No. 1 Michigan is at 182.6 for the season.

The interceptions by Altmyer, and turnovers in general, are the obvious and overt reasons that Illinois cannot score more points on offense, and at least stay competitive agasint Power Five teams.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Illinois at Purdue
The offensive line gives away another play, unable to protect the QB. It’s a theme in 2023 that will not improve.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Illinois averages 20.6 first downs a game, in the middle of the pack, ranked 8th.

  • Offensive line: The left side cannot pass block, and the right side cannot run block. Depite having enormous players at every position, Altmyer and the stable of running backs do not have enough time to do anything. Illinois has given up the most sacks (20), which is 11.1% more than EVERYONE else.
  • Passing Game: Illinois is 5th in yards per game (242.6), 7th in TDs (7), tied for last with SIX INTERCEPTIONS,
  • Running game: Through five games this yeaer, Illinois is averaging only 148.2 yards per game and just seven TDs. Both are 10th in the Big Ten. Lunney is averaging only 4.4 YPC.
  • Playmaking: In Week 5 alone, Altmyer missed a tight end by 5 yards that was literally the only human being on that side of the field for a wide open touchdown. In the second half, Pat Bryant dropped a PERFECTLY THROWN ball for a walk-in touchdown of over 60 yards that would have made it a game. I titled this playmaking, but is is really just MAKING A PLAY.
  • Point Production: Illinois is 12th in the B1G in PPG, at a paltry 21.6, ahead of only Indiana (20.8) and Nebraska (18.8). No one is ever open, and then when they are, the QB either throws it into the seventh row, or the wide receiver drops it, like it’s hot.
  • Screen game: Hahahahahahahhhaah

I had higher hopes for this unit. Factually, if Bielema was going to show that his program took a step forward in 2023 after an encouraging 2022, it had to be better. Every program seems to be able to score points at will, except the Illinois Fighting Illini.

For added context and frustration on the Week 5 beatdown by Purdue, let’s look at third downs for Purdue’s defense.

  • Before the Illinois game: 32 for 60 (53.3%)
  • Against Illinois: 2 for 13 (15.3%)

This underscores, highlights and emphasizes how putrid this offense is, in totality.

Now, let’s take a look at the defense. Not a shocker that it’s not as good as last year, but they’ve been bad. Maybe really bad.

After leading the country in PPG last year, Illinois has flipped the script. In the worst possible way.

Despite having a first-round NFL pick along the defensive line (Johnny Newton) and another future NFLer (Keith Randolph), the Illinois defense has been the easiest to score on in the entire conference.

Illinois is giving up 30.6 PPG in 2023.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Illinois
Illinois has been so bad, that I can’t even find a recent picture of Bielema in the images that we can use. Not ideal.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois is scoring 21.6 PPG in 2023.

The average game this season has Illinois losing by almost double digits, 31-22. Pathetic and embarrassing.

Through five games, Illinois has only seven sacks. Seven. The same number as Northwestern, and one fewer than Indiana. Iowa is last with three in five games.

Let’s bookmark that and see how many they get when they face Illinois later in the year.

Here’s a topline look at the defensive rankings in the conference:

  • Interceptions: Tied for last (3)
  • Sacks: Tied for 11th (7)
  • First downs allowed: LAST (24.0) per game. The Illini have handed the other team 17 first downs with penalties in 5 games. Last in the conference.
  • 3rd Down Conversions: 48.7% (13th)

See anything you like in either unit? Yeah, me either.

I do not see these issues being fixed in the near future, given that they haven’t been adjusted through five games.

Barry Lunney is definitely not the answer at OC. Aaron Henry is in his first year.

With USC, Oregon, UCLA and Washington joining the Big Ten next year, Bielema has no time to sort through issues and “get to the bottom of it.”

Please take my scientific poll.


Who is to blame for the terrible start to 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 55%
    Bret Bielema
    (150 votes)
  • 44%
    Anyone else.
    (120 votes)
270 votes total Vote Now

I like Bielema. A lot. Like, a lot alot.

This is Year 3. This is 2-3. This is well with my soul.

This is Illinois football.