“Kid, you’re on a roll. Enjoy it while it lasts, ‘cause it never does.”
Lou Mannheim - Wall Street
Last year, Illinois shook off an early loss to the Hoosiers to go on one of its most exciting runs of the 21st century. Illinois had an 8-win season that prompted optimism for Bret Bielema’s squad’s future.
(Cue the “It’s Illinois. Of course the good times can’t possibly last” grumbling.)
The good times haven’t continued on the field. After last year’s 7-1 start, Bielema and company have gone 4-8. I would refer to that as “pulling a Lovie.” 4-8 was a pretty standard experience during Smith’s tenure, and Illinois has reverted to those tendencies.
Bret Bielema didn’t inherit a successful program. He didn’t inherit a winning tradition. He inherited a bottom-tier Power 5 roster.
Or did he?
Bielema and co. did a tremendous job coaching up Lovie Smith’s recruits. But those guys were NFL talents even if they hadn’t shown it as NFL players yet. Losing as much talent to the pros as Bielema did no doubt made a major impact on the roster.
(Cue the other classic Illini fan trope: Bielema succeeded with Lovie’s players.)
The current staff’s players are just starting to become contributors in large part. We’re seeing players like Kaden Feagin, Gabe Jacas, Xavier Scott, and Zachary Tobe making an impact on the field. But the lack of consistency of the roster as a whole is still problematic.
This weekend in Minneapolis, Illinois will play a beatable team. They will bring their young defense to the field against an unspectacular quarterback. Johnny Newton will be out for the first half, but that’s no excuse for Illinois playing with relentless pursuit and sturdy discipline. Luke Altmyer has yet another chance to lead Illinois to a roadkill against a bowl-bound conference foe.
A win here coupled with expected wins over Indiana and Northwestern would bring Illinois to back-to-back bowl games. All told, that would be an acceptable salvage job for a season that has looked doomed in the shadow of losses to Purdue, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
A loss here and Bielema will have bookended his 8-5 campaign with (at best) two 5-7 seasons. That’s stasis. That’s sustained mediocrity. That’s not what Bielema’s $30M+ buyout should produce.
Hopefully, the staff made solid gains on the recruiting trail during the bye week. This week, however, the team should be ready to pounce on a winnable moment in a roller-coaster season.
Also, if the Illini can pull this one out, I am petty enough to give special exaltation to the win because PJ Fleck. Just saying.