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Jack Jungmann // TCR

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Bielema’s Illini didn’t improve in Year 3

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Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!

Our long, national nightmare is finally over. Illinois football ends the 2023 season at 5-7 overall and just 1-5 in the Big Ten West.

HBC Bret Bielema used the one-word slogan of “frustrating” to describe this season in the last post-game press conference, a loss to rival Northwestern, 45-43.

This game was a microcosm of the season. Here’s how:

  • Illinois handed Northwestern 24 points off of turnovers. This is obviously an extreme number of points and is not the average, but Illinois literally lost more games than it won this year.
  • Failure to execute simple plays. Illinois missed a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter when the quarterback and tight end weren’t on the same page. A botched catch and throw.
  • No adjustments made on the defensive end in late half situations. After a tremendous pick-six to potentially end the half on a high note, Northwestern scores a TD on the ensuing possession to take the lead going into the half.
  • Back-to-back special teams errors by returners (muffed punt and fumbled kickoff return) lead to Northwestern scoring 14 points in just nine seconds. Illinois went from up 3 with the ball to down 11...just like that.
  • Referee malfeasance. Senior wide receiver was essentially mauled on the final two-point play. The referees picked up the flag due to a “deflection.” The foul occurred a full two seconds before Illini QB John Paddock released the ball. Bielema called the lack of clarity and accuracy on the play “bullshit” in the presser after the game.
Bielema roams the sidelines on Senior Day in 2023. With one of the more talented senior classes in recent memory, Illinois couldn’t make it to any bowl game.
TCR // Jack Jungmann

Coulda. Shoulda. Woulda.

Before we break down the season, write the obituary and perform the autopsy, let’s set a few ground rules.

I’m neither advocating for Bielema to be fired, nor am I making excuses as to why being under .500 for three full seasons in a terrible division means the HBC should be tarred, feathered and quartered.

It’s complicated. It’s layered. It’s Illinois football.

Illinois faithful showed up despite a poor season, and a three-year stretch where the team has won a very few number of home games. I doubt that continues for Year 4 with Bielema.
TCR // Jack Jungmann

Expectations and reality at Illinois football.

Here’s the weird thing about Illinois football fans. They are simultaneously self aware and illogical. Expectations of the program are low from the fan base that has been battered for decades.

That is where the self awareness comes from.

The illogical qualifier comes from comparing the latest ineptitude of the head coach with all-time Illinois fan favorite “The Previous Guy” (TPG). Although TPG was rightfully fired and incompetent, the current HBC gets compared to past TPGs as validation of progress.

Redbox Bowl - California v Illinois
TPG. Lovie Smith. Went bowling one time during his tenure in Champaign, albeit a loss. It was the Redbox Bowl. Remember Redbox?
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s a vicious cycle of cognitive dissonance.

Admittedly, this is some all-world cherry picking. However, not a small sample size.

Big Ten Games:

  • Lovie Smith’s last three years in Big Ten games: 8-17 (.320)
  • Bielema in his last 14 B1G games: 4-10 (.285)
  • Bielema vs. Non-Scott Frost in the Big Ten in three years: 10-15 (.400)
  • Bielema vs. Non-subsequently fired head coaches (add Chryst 2022): 9-15 (.375)*

*Does not include a 2-0 record against Pay Fitzgerald (fired). That would be 7-15 (.318).

Illinois lost all three games this year they won last year against fired coaches during last offseason (Nebraska - Matt Rhule, Wisconsin - Luke Fickell and Northwestern - David Braun).

Overall for both:

  • Lovie’s last three years: 12-20 overall (.375)
  • Bielema’s last 17 games overall: 6-11 (.352)

This is where the reality sets in, versus just plain old expectations. Context is always King. Always.

If we set aside our “TPG-colored glasses” and look at it for what it is, and not what it’s not, you can see the picture a little more clearly.

Let’s take a look at Year 3 for Bielema did in 2023. Eight wins in 2022 wasn’t exactly a springboard, to say the least.

Here’s the statistical overview.

  • Overall: 5-7 (.417)
  • Big Ten: 3-6 (.334)
  • PPG: 24.5 (63%, 84th of 133)
  • PPG Allowed: 29.4 (71.4%, 95th of 133)
  • Strength of Schedule: 1.17 (46%, 60th of 130)
John Paddock trots out during the Senior Day festivities pre-game. He was excellent again, in another loss.
TCR // Jack Jungmann

Clear regression in 2023. One-possession games be damned.

After improving PPG by less than a full point on offense, the defense fell back to earth, and then some. From first overall in allowed points last season, Illinois surrendered nearly 30 points a contest in 2023.

The squad had an average point differential of (-4.9) for the season. Not ideal.

Here are some defensive Big Ten lowlights:

  • 10th in third down conversions (36.0%)
  • 11th in total defense
  • 13th in sacks allowed
  • 13th in penalties (79) and 14th in penalty yards per game (62.4)
  • 13th in Opponents third down conversions (44.0%)
  • Last in interceptions (7)
  • Last in Opponents first downs (22.3 per game)
  • Last in Red Zone attempts by opposing offense

The offense is better by comparison, but it would be impossible not to be. The emergence of Paddock is by far the biggest story of the 2023 football season.

The obvious point on this year is that there were eight one-possession games, in which Illinois was 5-3. This could be sign of progress, sure.

Two of these one-possession games were Toledo and Florida Atlantic.

These two wins validate the program direction more than a miracle win in MSP.

Toledo ended up winning the rest of its games, finishing the season 11-1. It took a miraculous connection between Luke Altmyer and Casey Washington on fourth down late in the game to beat the Rockets.

Casey Washington makes a contested catch late in the Toledo win to help win the game.
TCR // Brad Repplinger

That was the first miracle win of the season.

Two more followed at Minnesota and at home against Indiana. The Indiana win was miraculous because Illinois once again folded like a paper bag in the last two minutes.

Sad to say, but Altmyer getting hurt in the final minute against Minnesota probably added two wins the total for 2023 for Bielema and Co.

That game is certainly a loss, and I don’t see Altmyer throwing for five bills beating Indiana in OT 48-45.

Illinois also suffered a “miracle loss” to Wisconsin, allowing 18 fourth-quarter points, losing a “one-possession game” despite leading by two touchdowns in Q4.

Ryan Walters on the opposite sideline this year. That apparently made a huge difference in Year 3.
TCR // David Pollak

Also: lost to 25 points at Purdue (record of 4-8) and at home to Nebraska by 13 (ended the season on a four-game losing streak).

You can’t lose these three games in Year 3 (Wisconsin, Purdue and Nebraska) and claim progress. Illinois also handed the Hat back to Northwestern, for reasons I already mentioned.

  • Best Wins: @ Minnesota and @ Maryland
  • Worst Losses: @ Purdue, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern

The basement for 2023 should have been seven wins. Given the trends discussed at the top of the column and comparing to TPG, it’s not difficult to see how this team won only five games with a weak schedule and favorable cross-over conference opponents.

At this point, it’s fair to ask if 2022 was lightning in a bottle with an all-world DC and playmakers leftover by TPG.

The offense did not improve much overall in Year 2 with Barry Lunney as the coordinator.

There are enough bright spots there, and enough injuries, to understand that Year 3 with Lunney could show some marked improvement, provided the transfer portal and development is over indexed by the offensive line and corresponding staff.

Aaron Henry is with former DC Ryan Walters talking to his secondary last season.
TCR // Jack Jungmann

After loss No. 7 to end the season, Bielema made remarks to the effect of “we’ve been doing this three years now and everyone figured it out and we need to adjust” (paraphrase).

It only took 12 games to come to that conclusion.

Please take The Scientific Poll.

Poll

If you were the Illinois AD, what would you do with the coaching staff?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Make another assessment after Year 4
    (98 votes)
  • 19%
    Keep Bielema, but get a new DC
    (97 votes)
  • 21%
    Keep Bielema, get two new coordinators
    (105 votes)
  • 22%
    Meet with Bielema and make a determination after that meeting what to do for 2024
    (110 votes)
  • 15%
    Fire the staff and begin a national search
    (76 votes)
486 votes total Vote Now

This is three years. This is no bowl game. This is more of the same.

This is Illinois football.