CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Do not panic yet, Illini fans.
Despite the record being at an undesirable 1-2 so far, there is still plenty of the season left to play.
Head coach Bret Bielema and his coordinators reflected on the early struggles in Monday’s press conference, but they aren’t worried about their progression.
In fact, much of what they saw on Saturday’s loss to highly-ranked Penn State gave them confidence that this team is starting to take shape.
The Illinois defense developing an identity was a big success story of last weekend’s game, but now the cause for concern has switched to the offensive side.
“The big question will be at quarterback,” Bielema said.
While the Illini defense held freshman standout Drew Allar to 16/33 and only 208 yards passing, Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer had the worst game of his young career.
In only his fourth start in college, Altmyer threw for 163 yards and four interceptions before being benched for backup John Paddock at the end of the third quarter.
“When you watch the film, you see how razor thin the margin of error is in the game,” said offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.
Illini fans are already experiencing a much different quarterback situation than last year. Altmyer threw as many interceptions on Saturday (4) as Tommy DeVito had the entirety of the 2022 season.
“Part of this game is you’ve got to bounce back,” Lunney said. “He’ll learn from it.”
There was no reason to suspect in the press conference that the switch to Paddock reflected uncertainty about who will be starting under center for the foreseeable future.
“You learn more from yourself during moments of adversity than you do from moments of success,” Bielema said. “How Luke responds and comes back is gonna be awesome.”
Before anyone makes snap judgements about Altmyer after one bad game, remember how quickly Saturday’s defensive performance silenced the doubters. The beginning of this tough schedule was all about living through the growing pains and trusting the process.
An inexperienced quarterback who was thrust into a new system with huge expectations is guaranteed to go through these same pains, especially against a defense as talented as Penn State.
NEXT GAME UP
Games against defending-MAC-champion Toledo, a talented Kansas team, and top-10 Penn State rounded out one of the hardest three-game schedules to start an Illinois season in years.
Now, it’s time to take a breather. The final game of the non-conference schedule is here, but it pales in comparison to the previous three.
Florida Atlantic is also 1-2 on the season, handling Monmouth in its first game before suffering back-to-back defeats to Ohio and Clemson.
Possibly the biggest news surrounding the Owls is their quarterback situation as well. On Monday, it was announced that starting quarterback Casey Thompson suffered a torn ACL in a 48-14 loss against Clemson on Saturday night.
The name Casey Thompson should ring a bell. Before this season, he started at Nebraska and suffered a home loss at the hands of Bielema and Illinois in 2022.
Daniel Richardson, a transfer quarterback from Central Michigan, will fill in for Thompson for the foreseeable future. Regardless of their situation, Bielema is more concerned about the Illini’s ability to put a complete game together.
“We haven’t effectively run the ball consistently through four quarters, and we haven’t defended effectively in four quarters,” Bielema said.
A big part of running the ball effectively was shown on Saturday through junior back Reggie Love III. For most of the game, Love had the lone Illinois touchdown, bulldozing his way through multiple Penn State defenders and scoring from five yards out.
“Reggie has been so impressive to me since I’ve been here,” Bielema said. “People like that get rewarded in big ways eventually, and I hope his day is coming.”
Potential “breather” game or not, no win is guaranteed. Bielema knows this well, as he emphasized the importance of being prepared for anything.
Considering that Florida Atlantic is coming off a Saturday-night atmosphere at Clemson, it will be prepared for anything too.
“They’re not going to be intimidated walking into our stadium,” Bielema said. “[They’re] very well-coached.”
Bielema and his team are just focusing on one game at a time, but they know that the eight-game stretch of Big Ten contests is coming soon. To truly compete in a tough Big Ten this year, his players will need to have a confident win under their belts before heading into conference play.
“They’ll ‘respect all, fear none,’” Bielema said, “and get excited to play them and play the scheme.”