Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!
On the eve of the official beginning of men’s basketball, HBC Bret Bielema and his football team decided to steal my attention for at least one more day.
It’s no secret that I have not been — shall we say — “impressed” with the Illini this fall on the gridiron. It has been quite the opposite, in fact.
For about 95% of the season, the offense has looked shallow, inept and easy to cover.
Having said that, I’ll say this. The win at Minnesota 27-26 in Week 10 was the team I thought that I was going to see the entire season.
What this game SHOULD have been, and WHAT IT IS, in reality, will be discussed at the end of this column. I don’t want to spoil this great win already.
The hero of the game is backup quarterback John Paddock. His stat line: 3-3, 85 yards, 1 TD with rating of 448.0 and a perfect QBR of 100.
Here’s what he had to say about his shocking heroics on X.
Perfect post. No fat. All bite, no bark.
Of all of the probable things to happen in an Illinois football game in 2023, the scenario that played out in MSP had to be either last on the list, or second to last. The only other less probable outcome would be Barry Lunney Jr. and this offense hanging 40+ on someone.
Most fans probably don’t even know who he is, because when he’s played, he has been pedestrian and forgettable...until Saturday.
After QB1 Luke Altmyer threw his fourth interception against Penn State early in the year, Paddock came in and it literally looked like they pulled him out of the stands his first ten throws. He was missing guys by legitimately 10 feet.
Paddock was decisive and precise, coming in and immediately playing to win and firing that pigskin all over the yard. The pass to win the game to Williams was no easy throw, and he got crushed right as he threw it.
This begs the question. Why can’t Illinois play wide open on offense more often...or at least...ever?
Anyone that follows this program has been begging for Lunney and the offense to open it up and take the top off of the defense to allow some space for the underneath routes that occupy the bulk of the Lunney playbook.
I often joke on our TCR Slack: No. One. Is. Ever. Open.
After Paddock comes in and does what he did yesterday, maybe I was wrong all along.
Here’s three possible scenarios:
- Altmyer has poor field vision, and does not see downfield or get to his secondary reads. It seems like every throw Altmyer completes is either the first year, into an extremely tight window - or both.
- Bielema has told Lunney to play conservatively and even the time of possession.
- Lunney cannot adjust to the defense, once his scripted plays to begin the game are exhausted. This is a frequent trend this year.
Either way it gets sliced, it’s not a good look for a second year OC and/or HBC when a backup QB comes in and shreds the defense and gets 85 yards on three completions to win the game.
The play calling and quarterback mentality were wide-ass open! You LOVE to see it.
The outcome is a great look, the optics are not.
I sense a quarterback controversy, or at least an official quarterback confirmation by Bielema at the next media availability.
Here’s something of great import to impart: Altmyer was 24-31 (77.4%) for 212 yards, 3 TDs and one mind-boggling interception late in the game. Altmyer also fumbled to set up one Minnesota score.
This fumble was 0% his fault. The left tackle Julian Pearl got beat faster than a remote control with dead batteries. Not a shocking development. to say the least.
More intrigue to the Illinois football week. Bielema is about to catch up to Brad Underwood and hoops, in terms of you never know what to expect at any given moment.
Not great for Illinois fans’ EKGs, but awesome for a sports columnist. Keep it coming, Big Boy!
Isaiah Williams was capable of this since making the transition to WR when Bielema arrived. Lunney and his brain finally were able to compute to get him the ball.
Throw him the damn ball. Not behind the line of scrimmage, either. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Williams was open down the sideline for an easy completion, and Altmyer overthrew the speedy wideout by three yards.
For the first time this season, Lunney made a concerted effort to get the ball into his best offensive player’s hands as often as possible. Williams had 15 touches in the game, including a run for a first down after motioning across the field, and back.
It’s almost as if the best players give you the best chance to win when the ball is in their hands.
That’s how you win. Sports are not a democracy.
Bielema is now 3-0 against Fleck at Illinois and 10-0 in his career against Minnesota.
WHO JUST LOST TO THE ILLINI FOR THE THIRD STRAIGHT TIME???— The Kingfisher (@TheKingfisher18) November 4, 2023
WHO JUST WENT 0-10 ALL TIME AGAINST BIG BRET??? pic.twitter.com/AFC5iAYWUc
Had Johnny Newton not been suspended for a letter of the law targeting call against Wisconsin and played the entire game, Minnesota and PJ Fleck’s offense gets nowhere the 26 point mark.
Newton came in after halftime, and immediately made an impact, recording a sack on a tackle/end stunt and running down Minnesota’s Athan Kaliakmanis like a wounded gazelle on the sahara.
The Gophers offense started off hotter than hell’s pepper patch without Newton on the field. Kaliakmanis had more than 100 yards passing in the first quarter alone.
The game started with four consecutive touchdowns, two by each team. We came for a Big Ten West game, and a PAC-12 game broke out.
Remember at the beginning of this column when I said we would discuss what this game is, versus what it should have been? Let’s talk about that now.
I’ve talked about the lack of a talent gap with Illinois and its Big Ten West opponents. This is another game that proves Illinois and Bielema have all but thrown away their season.
Here’s why I say that.
After three embarrassing losses — at Purdue by 25, and home games against Nebraska (favored by 3) and Wisconsin (gave up 18 fourth-quarter points) — the chances of Bielema and Illinois getting close to a Big Ten West division title all but evaporated.
Think about these three games for a second. The more you know about them, the higher the frustration piles.
Purdue: 1-7 against anyone not named Illinois, winless in five other Big Ten games. Illinois lost to them by 25 points. Twenty. Five.
Nebraska: Just lost to Michigan State, who is embroiled in scandal and has been blown out every week. Nebraska beat Purdue by 17 two weeks ago, 31-14.
Wisconsin: Just lost to Indiana for the second time in two decades, and is now 5-4 on the season. They have scored 24 total points the last 8 quarters (scored 18 in Q4 in Champaign).
- Combined record against Illinois: 3-0 (1.000)
- Combined record against the rest of of the Big Ten: 4-9 (.308)
As we head into Week 11, Illinois sits at 4-5 and 2-4 in the Big Ten West (2 games behind Iowa).
Iowa (7-2) is now 4-2 after besting Northwestern in the worst game of the season at Wrigley Field 10-7. Iowa lost its last home game to Minnesota 12-10.
Being two games back and playing at Iowa for the second to last game of the year, Bielema and the Illini are not eliminated.
Had his squad shown up at all against the trio of Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern, this would be an exciting finish. Instead, this will be another season of what ifs and should haves for Bielema and Illinois football.
Two out of three ain’t bad, if you ask the late Meatloaf. It is, when you’re talking about Illinois football and possibly pissing away not one, but two, Big Ten West division titles in as many years.
Please take The Scientific Poll.
Illinois finishes their season with three games. Indiana at home, @ Iowa and Northwestern at home. What will their record be?
This poll is closed
0-3 (4-8 overall)
1-2 (5-7 overall)
2-1 (6-6 overall)
3-0 (7-5 overall)
This is a miracle finish. This is the stretch run. This is more frustration.
This is Illinois football.