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‘Our kids believe’: Illinois still has eyes set on bowl eligibility

The Illini are hunting for win No. 4 this weekend.

TCR // Brad Repplinger
TCR // Brad Repplinger

Heading into Week 10 of the college football season, the Illini find themselves at the bottom of the Big Ten West.

After a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin during this year’s Homecoming matchup, a banged up Illinois team is coming off its bye week.

The story of that game, despite the loss, was Johnny Newton’s ejection for targeting and many wondering if it was the right call. Head coach Bret Bielema was one of the many who didn’t agree with the decision.

“In my time, I’ve never appealed a targeting rule all the way to the NCAA,” Bielema said. “So that was a new process for me.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Michigan State at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unfortunately for Illinois, the appeal was denied and Newton will be out for the first half of the Illini’s upcoming game against Minnesota.

This will leave room for other guys to rise to the occasion on the defensive side of the ball. Bielema knows his players will be aiming to seize their moments.

“A couple other guys at other positions have really, in Johnny’s absence, felt the pressure to step up and play,” Bielema said.

Bottom of the Division

Tied with Purdue for last in the West, Illinois knows there are a lot of areas to improve upon. That involves a lot of uncomfortable communication going on within the program.

“Obviously to be a 3-5 team going into a bye week, there were going to be a lot conversations from coaches to players,” Bielema said.

One positive from the mid-season break is that it gives the players a chance to catch their breath. In a season full of injuries, it’ll be good to see a few familiar faces potentially returning to the field this weekend.

“Keith [Randolph], Reggie [Love], two of the biggest guys,” Bielema said. “I think they’ll be with us, a lot depends on how they handle this week.”

Nebraska v Illinois Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Even during the off-week, however, the Illini were still feeling the lingering injuries. Especially lacking at the running back position, the team had to find new ways to carry out a full practice.

“We got a little thin on running backs going into the bye week,” Bielema said. “There was literally a day we had to move two guys from defense over just so we could practice.”

Bye Week Strategy

Coach also mentioned the strategy going into this bye week. While it is nice to have a short break, the team needs to know how manage, but not “over-manage,” having two weeks off between games.

“I think the key is being able to understand that you get a little bit of a jump, but you also can over prepare for an opponent,” Bielema said. “There’s a very delicate balance.”

Illinois knows that because of factors beyond its control, such as injuries, they haven’t been able to play to their full potential. In a season that has the realistic ceiling of bowl game eligibility, the guys still want to finish out this campaign with a bang.

“I think the reason our kids play hard right now is that our kids believe,” Bielema said. “And they’re very frustrated, as frustrated as fans are and other people, I can promise you we’re 10 times more frustrated.”

Wisconsin v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Despite the negatives and disappointments that will be attached to the 2023 season when looking back, Bielema still emphasizes on taking away the positives from this year.

“I’ve said all along that men are defined more in their moments of adversity than they are in their moments of success,” Bielema said. “Obviously we’ve had some adversity this year and we’re really looking for the proper response in these next four games, one week at a time.”

A win against Wisconsin would’ve put the Illini just one game out of a share of the lead in the Big Ten West. While it’s impossible to go back and change what’s already happened on the field, it’s important to use it as a lesson and apply it to the rest of the season going forward.

“You have to focus on the things we need to correct,” Bielema said. “But also you can’t lose sight of the positive things.”

Illinois is heading on the road to Minnesota this weekend to take on the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.