Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!
After securing an improbable victory on the road against Maryland, it seemed like Bret Bielema and Illinois had turned the proverbial corner, and could have a chance to turn a season of lemons into some momentum-inducing lemonade into the offseason.
Instead, Illinois blew a 14-point second half lead and surrendered 18 points in the fourth quarter to a team that had scored 20 points the previous eight quarters combined, and Illinois lost 25-21. In the process, the demoralizing loss makes it a near lock that Illinois will miss a bowl game for the third time in four years.
Illinois is now 3-5 on the season and 1-4 in the Big Ten, bad for last in the worst division in Power 5 football.
Let’s make a few things clear, and set some parameters for the argument I’m about to make.
I’ll go ahead and list them, so we can all agree on some key points.
- Illinois has a talent gap from Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. There is no doubting that. Bielema is 0-1 against these teams.
- Illinois has a poor offensive line. Many college teams do. Few of these teams, if any, still struggle to get to 100 passing yards in 2024 at home. Illinois just did that.
- Illinois does not have a talent gap wide enough to be prohibitive against Kansas, Purdue, Nebraska, Maryland or Wisconsin. Bielema is 1-4 against these teams in 2023.
Let’s get some historical context on Bielema, and investigate how much hope there is that the future will be better than the present.
Dating back to the end of last year, Illinois and Bielema are now 4-8 (.333) their last 12 games, and 2-6 (.250) their last eight conference games.
The last four wins for Illinois are:
- 2022: At Northwestern, 41-3
- Week 1: 30-28 over Toledo
- Week 4: 23-17 over FAU
- Week 7: 27-24 @ Maryland
The three wins this year are by a COMBINED 11 total points.
The five losses this year are by a COMBINED 70 points.
The highest point total for the year is still 30, against Toledo.
Wisconsin came to town for homecoming, which is ironic given that Bielema once called Madison home as the head coach there from 2006-12.
Bielema compiled a record of 68-24, won two Big Ten titles and went to three-straight Rose Bowls his last three seasons, before making a shock departure to Arkansas. In 2012, Bielema was 8-5, his worst season in five years.
Bielema would probably now tell you that he should have stayed put in Madison.
At Arkansas, Bielema went 29-34 overall and 11-29 in the SEC. He was fired after five seasons.
In 8.5 seasons at Arkansas and Illinois, Bielema is now 45-51 overall and 21-42 in conference play. I get it. Arkansas and Illinois aren’t exactly world-beating programs, to say the least.
That’s a lot of football games and not a lot of success, to say the least.
The task at hand is looking at the Illinois program after 2.5 seasons, and see if any objective improvements have been made to the on the field product. It seems like there are some patterns developing, particularly in close games.
At one point in the fourth against Wisconsin, Illinois had a 96.7% chance to win (according to Yahoo! Sports). Not only did Illinois lose, Wisconsin covered the spread of three points.
The chances of that happening had to be well below 1%. Well below.
How it happened and why it happened is pretty obvious. Illinois cannot complete a forward pass with any consistency, or score points with any regularity. We’ve already talked about that futility in previous columns.
Here’s some factual statistics from the loss to Wisconsin.
Let’s unpack a few categories.
Offense: Look at the passing yards by quarter...
- 100 passing yards total on 21 attempts. 31 of those yards came in the final 30 seconds on a drive that should have never been necessary.
- Passing yards by quarter: 1st (48), 2nd (14), 3rd (7), 4th (31). Illinois had 21 passing yards in 30 minutes of football in 2023.
- 313 total yards
- Isaiah Williams had four catches for 16 yards (4 YPC).
- 213 rushing yards on 45 attempts (4.7 YPC)
- Third down: 7/16 (43.8%)
- ONE sack on 41 pass attempts
- Did not convert three easy interception chances
- 139 rushing yards on 35 attempts (4.0 YPC). Braelon Allen did the bulk of his damage in the second half.
- Third down for Wisconsin: 10/17 (58.8%). Wisconsin was 1/17 (5.8%) against Iowa last week.
The Illinois defense gave up a TD in the last two minutes of both halves. This has been an announced point of emphasis for Bielema. He has commented on this for several press conferences.
Let’s go back to the parameters I set at the beginning of this column.
I feel like I have realistic expectations for what the Illinois football program should be. Win games you should win, most of the time. You’re not going to compete, for at least another decade, with Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State.
Throw in Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA next year. The task becomes increasingly difficult.
Here are the FOUR losses this year that should have been avoided altogether, or should have been, at MINIMUM, two victories: @Kansas, @Purdue, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Win just two of these, and you’re 5-3, not 3-5. Win three and you’re 6-2.
Instead, Bielema found a way to be non-competitive in the two road games, and average 14 PPG in the two home losses.
As a reminder the road games at Kanas (+3.5) and Purdue (+1) were extremely winnable. Illinois was down by 24 to Kansas in the second half, and lost by 25 at Purdue.
Purdue is 1-5 agasint all teams not named Illinois in 2023.
With the Illinois offense so far behind the times, and the new B1G coming next season, an obvious path forward with a modicum of success has yet to emerge.
No more Big Ten West. No more winning games 17-14. No more layups, if any existed to begin with for Illinois.
Illinois will have to be able to score points to even be somewhat competitive.
The Illini have a wasted season in 2023 not due to a perceived talent gap, or roster depth.
This season is wasted because the Illini continue to make the same mistakes over and over. They have been unable to win home games, losing five-straight conferences games dating back to last season. LLLLL.
After Mr. All World Johnny Newton was ejected for targeting last night, the Illini completely imploded. By the way, the call was correct. It’s ridiculous that it was correct, but it was correct nonetheless.
That seemed to be the main talking point for Bielema after the game. He said he got “zero” explanation on the targeting call, even saying that Newton “led with his hands.”
He either doesn’t know the rules, or cannot see.
Either way, it’s par for the course. Good enough never is.
Please take my scientific poll.
What is your confidence level in the program moving forward?
This poll is closed
Better than it was a few years ago.
Bowl games are good enough.
Wait and see.
I’ll leave you with this.
Who would win a game if it was played during the upcoming bye week?
Year 1 Bielema vs. Year 3 Bielema.
The fact that you didn’t say Year 3 immediately is all you need to know.
This is Illinois football.