The worst loss in Bret Bielema’s Illinois career happened Friday night. And it wasn't even close.
Here is the EPA chart from this week:
And here is the chart from the previous worst loss, Wisconsin, in 2021:
There’s a distinct difference in the two charts.
In the 2021 Wisconsin game, Illinois ended the game with a cumulative EPA of -5. In last week’s game Illinois ended with a cumulative EPA of -25.
Even if you look at the Virginia game in 2021:
Illinois was still Fighting, until they couldn't anymore, ending with a 20-point cumulative EPA against Virginia.
There was that “us against the world” mentality in the first two years of Bielema’s team that let them continue to have positive plays even when unlucky interceptions or shutouts happened.
The -5 Cumulative EPA is merely an aberration in all football games played and is a statistical anomaly — equally as probable as a Cumulative EPA of 0.
What the first two years of the Bielema Era also had was age. The offensive line had stayed pretty much the same for six straight years — built around Alex Palczewski and other NFL dudes. It had upperclassmen in the Brown brothers, Jake Hansen, Jamal Woods, and, for that matter, Brandon Peters, Art Sitkowski, and No. 5 draft pick Devon Witherspoon.
What it lacked in talent, it made up in stars and starts. What it lacked in coaching, it made up in grit. These teams were the David to Michigan’s Goliath.
But this is where it all breaks down.
The utter collapse last week against Nebraska and two weeks ago against Purdue is from a team devoid of all that. You can see the sparks, but by and large, this team is lacking in that senior voice. Those voices were supposed to be the two-time captains: linebacker Tarique Barnes and wide receiver Isaiah Williams.
Barnes (13 tackles, 1 sack) has been all but missing since Week 1 and Williams is still leading the Big Ten in yards but has no touchdowns to his name.
I know that Barnes has been dealing with injuries and Williams hasn’t had the easiest time getting open — so no fault of their own — but when you pair that with a whole new offensive line, a new quarterback, new running backs, and new-to-starting-role linebackers and defensive backs, the hesitations and the missteps make the slow and defeated plays make a little more sense.
If this is genuinely a rebuild, this season so far and what will become of it is the bottom of the barrel. There is no way but up, but there is still that delusional side of me that believes that in the long run the mistakes Illinois is making this season are a positive.
In the old Big Ten this would be fine — every Big Ten West team goes through a cycle, and the schedules were all teams with playing styles that Illinois matched. I would be less worried if there was another year of the Big Ten West. But starting next season three current top-10 (USC, Oregon, Washington) teams and one top-20 (UCLA) teams get added to the league.
Here’s at PPG so far for the incoming teams in 2023, with Illinois for comparison:
USC: 53.6 PPG
Oregon: 51.6 PPG
Washington: 46.0 PPG
UCLA: 32.0 PPG
Average: 45.8 PPG
ILLINOIS: 19.2 PPG (only 138.5% below that average)
As Brandt mentioned, Illinois is running out of time, and Bielema needs to right this ship fast.
There are three strategies to do this.
Strategy 1: Get Old and Stay Old
Taking from the basketball side of the world, many successful teams do this and go far in March Madness. Gonzaga, Wisconsin (2015) and Villanova come to mind. This is clearly easy to do when you have only five starters and four other rotation players.
But when you have 22 players to worry about, this strategy gets to be a bit tough. It can work in bits and pieces — the offensive and defensive lines come to mind. This is why, even with the abysmal offensive line play this season, I still have some hope. Jeremy Werner mentioned something along these lines on his pod with J. Leman a week or two ago — in rebuilds, offensive lines are the last ones to reach their potential.
And we saw this work. Illinois’ senior-led offensive line was a semi-finalist for the Joe Moore Award.
The getting old part is the toughest. As fans, we should have seen this coming when Bielema mentioned a lack of depth on the offensive line two years ago.
Maybe build it around that Josh Kreutz kid. He gives me Doug Kramer vibes.
Strategy 2: Be Exciting. Throw it Down the Field. Score Points.
I feel this is a given, but it needs to be said.
Say Illinois was losing in a shootout every week. This past week was a 48-35, or Penn State Beat us 60-43; how will our opinions change?
They probably won’t, but at least the games would be more exciting, even if the scoring margin is the same. Being able to score points gives the fans a little bit of hope. It gives us much more hope than scoring 7 against a terrible Nebraska team.
I mean, either that or become the second Iowa and bring the other team down there with you.
But really, that sense of excitement we all felt when Pat Bryant made that single hand grab is what we want to feel every second of every game.
The big plays, the chunk yards, the scores. This one is on Barry Lunney, and he needs to fix his play-calling fast or he ain’t going to get any players that want to play for him.
Strategy 3: Be a Dawg
There ain't many dawgs on this team. Isaiah Williams is probably the closest.
At the bottom of the barrel, there is no room to be cute. There is no room for flea flickers. There is no room for tight end sneaks. There is no room for defensive pass interference. There is no room to be unsportsmanlike. There is no room for going for it on 4th-and-1s in the first quarter.
This strategy has the most risk for the most reward.
But in reality, you need a mix of all three.
Here are the steps Illinois needs to take:
- Get older on the offensive line. Look at FCS and G5 transfers who are game-ready. Don’t worry about the culture fit stuff — that is secondary.
- Recruit studs in the front seven. You have Charlie Bullen, Andy Buh, and Terrance Jamison. With that kind of pedigree, they should be able to swoon any talent in the portal.
- Throw the dang ball. Lunney has six games to prove he can script plays that make sense and get guys open. Altmyer often has too much time, can't find a guy, and takes the sack. Let the guys run. What more do you have to lose?
- Score some fucking points.