Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!
I feel like I’ve written this column 10 times in the past 12 months.
A winnable game for Illinois football that ends in a loss due to an unforeseen drop, or TWO in this case, incompetent use of timeouts or obviously being outcoached by the other team.
It’s similar, but never the same. It feels like it’s not going to happen again. Until it does.
Usually, it’s worse this time than last time. That was the case in Iowa City.
Illinois, and HBC Bret Bielema, blow yet another Big Ten West game in the fourth quarter against a team that has no offense to speak of for the year as a whole, or during the most recent two-plus quarters of the game against Illinois.
Michigan or Ohio State come storming back to get you at the end? Not acceptable, but understandable.
Penn State pick off Luke Altmyer four times and wins easily? Not ideal, but palatable.
Bielema is in Year Three at Illinois. The Big Ten West degrades every year. No separation exists from the “worst” team to the “best” team.
The division seems like an amalgamation of mediocrity, disguised as a hyperbolic metaphor of midwest toughness. It is neither.
In simpler terms: it’s pathetic.
It is objectively the worst division in Power 5 college football. And it’s not close.
A bigger problem than not being able to win this division for the entirety of its existence, is the fact that it perpetuates for a lone game in the future. The final contest of the 2023 season is a home game against Northwestern.
It will be the last Big Ten West game for Illinois football. Good riddance.
The issue with the bygone reality is it will be replaced by new matrix of competence, outlandish offense and great coaching.
It’s like adding four Kirk Ferentzes that coach offense instead of defense. Scoring 13 points against the newcomers next year will end the game by the end of Q1.
I could go into specifics, and in depth, of how this particular game deteriorated in predictable fashion. That is not an enjoyable experience to say the least. It’s not even a labor or love.
It’s infuriating and therapeutic.
The anger happens diagnostically. The therapeutic effect takes hold organically.
Sometimes saying it makes you feel better. Other times, it leads to anger. Particularly when the diagnosis happens in real time. No epiphany is around the corner.
Here are the reasons that Illinois lost again.
- Illinois threw the ball 47 times, completing 22 of them. (46.8% completion percentage). The Illinois defense is not good. They were going to break, eventually. Twenty-five incompletions extends the game to such a degree that a 15-13 game took more than four hours.
- Huge dropped passes by senior wide receivers. Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington both dropped enormous passes in the fourth quarter. The drop by Williams would have ended the game.
- Bielema and Lunney got worked by Ferentz and Iowa DC Phil Parker. Iowa knocked down or broke up 13 Paddock passes, including the final two attempts on the day. Too predictable. Too simple. Too generic.
- Illinois DC Aaron Henry played man-to-man for the 3rd & 8 that Iowa ran for 11 yards to seal the victory. No run blitz. No box stacking. No nothing. An easy counter and jog to end the game.
Oh, and this happened.
Now, I feel better.
Let’s turn our attention and focus to the head football coach. This is all on him. All of it. It’s the same thing over and over and over.
This Iowa game is not a new diagnosis of program incompetence to finish victories the past 12 months. We all know that’s the problem.
No one will say it out loud.
Here are the three most common defenses of Bielema and his lack of ability to get his team to win games, rather than compete in them. We’ll unpack them individually after.
- He is better than the last guy.
- He doesn’t have much to work with at some positions.
- It’s only Year three.
He is better than the last guy.
Bielema has brought the program to a level that it has not been since The Zooker arrived with all of those SEC recruits after he got fired by Florida in 2004.
Bielema is not only better than the last guy, but the four or five before him. That’s the old bar.
Zook blitzed the scene and went to a Rose Bowl early. When those players left, Zook mired in mediocrity or worse, before being put out of his misery after the 2011 season.
Yes. I know Bielema didn’t replace Zook.
Better than the last guy only works when the hire is made. Each game and year that passes, the factual representation of reality wanes in import.
Bielema has coached 36 games at Illinois.
- First 18: 10-8
- Second 18: 8-10
He’s not even better than himself. The last guy be damned.
He doesn’t have much to work with at some positions.
Although factual, this is the case for 99% of all coaches not named Kirby Smart or Nick Saban. The larger narrative this comment attempts to perpetuate is that there is a perceived talent gap, and that Bielema is “doing the best he can with what he’s got.”
Let’s go over this again.
- Purdue is 3-8. Smoked Illinois by 25. For the year, Purdue’s point differential is (-7.5) PPG. Take out the Illinois victory by 25, and it’s (-10.8). In other words, Purdue lost every game by double digits on average, and beat Bielema and Illinois by almost four TDs. The spread for that game was one point.
- Illinois lost to Nebraska at home 20-7. They failed to convert literally a 3rd & 3” and a 4th & 3” the first possession of that game. Set the tone in the loss. Nebraska is 2-5 against all other Big Ten teams.
- Wisconsin scored 18 points in the final quarter in Illinois to stun the Illini. They lost the next three games. They also lost the game previous to Illinois. In other words, Illinois was the only team Wisconsin beat for five weeks.
These three teams combined against the rest of the B1G: 8-15 (.348)
As an aside, the last four games in the fourth quarter, Illinois has given up 45 points. They’ve scored 18. This is the sign of a team that is poorly coached.
To be clear: The average margin of victory in those four games was 2.5 points. Illinois went 2-2, despite being outscored every game by an average of 6.8 PPG in Q4.
My official Talent Rankings for the Big Ten West (division record):
- Wisconsin (3-2)
- Illinois (1-4)
- Minnesota (2-3)
- Iowa (4-1)
- Nebraska (3-2)
- Purdue (2-4)
- Northwestern (3-2)
Illinois is the only team with only one win in the division.
I don’t think many would argue this. Illinois has by far the best NFL prospects in the division.
It’s only Year Three.
Yet another factual classic defense of HBC. I’ll give only records to retort. All of these coaches are in much more difficult conference situations than Illinois.
- Jedd Fisch (No. 17 Arizona) in the Pac 12: 8-3 (6-2)
- Lance Leipold (Kansas) in the Big 12: 7-4 (4-4)
- Mike Elko (Duke) in the ACC: 6-5 (3-4)
- Kalen Deboer (No. 5 Washington) in the Pac 12: 11-0 (8-0)
- Dan Lanning (No. 6 Oregon) in the Pac 12: 10-1 (7-1)
Please take my scientific poll.
What is your confidence level in Bret Bielema moving forward after this season in the new Big Ten?
5 - He’s the man for the job. Illinois will be able to compete and win against anyone within 2 years. Maybe compete for a Top 12 by the end of his first four years.
4 - He’ll never get us to an annual top 10. May be College Football Playoff contention once every 7-8 years.
3 - We can be competitive in some games, but will likely be blown out more than half the time agasint the Big Boys. Should be over .500 most years
2- I think a bowl game could be reached about half the time. We could get ranked every 2-3 if the schedule isn’t too bad
1 - Best case scenario is 4 or 5 wins, before he gets fired.
This is deja vu. This is pathetic. This is predictable.
This is Illinois football.