Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!
My mind is playing tricks on me. My emotional capital must find a way to expand itself.
It feels like I am living in the bizarro world these days.
I am incapable of having to deal with every single game being an individual heart attack watch from September, all the way through (early) March. See what I did there?
Illinois men’s basketball and football each have dynamic leaders, in the primes of their careers. Other Big Ten institutions, as well as Power Five programs scattered throughout the country, would take either to lead their programs in a heartbeat.
It’s bewildering and perplexing how far both of these programs have come the last handful of years. You often hear coaches waxing on about how “we didn’t come to this to only to get this far.”
That mindset remains the correct one to employ. At what point does it turn into a rhetorical question, with no answer satisfiable?
Brad Underwood (year 7) has obviously been at Illinois longer than Bret Bielema (year 3).
This is a newer concept for me today. Some will call this a hot take, or low-hanging fruit. Some of you may think I’m grasping at straws.
Hear me out. Let’s look at the two head coaches and highlight the stark similarities and successes both have enjoyed at Illinois
Illinois football is becoming equally as frustrating to watch as Illinois men’s basketball.
I never thought I’d type that sentence, for three reasons:
- Illinois men’s basketball is an entity into, and of, itself. There is no equal. The frustration and misery that accompanies being a diehard fan should be unmatched, with no other team having the literal capability to simulate the experience.
- It seemed like Illinois football would never attract a coach capable of actually pulling the program out of the depths of hell and into, at minimum, mediocrity. Three years ago, we would have been begging for a 2-2 start in football with potential All-Americans on both sides of the ball.
- The thought of this current situation becoming reality makes my neurons want to stop firing. My body has self-preservation mode. It has been activated.
Nevertheless, here we are.
It is not basketball season. Yet.
We’ll have nearly all the time in the world to unpack the consistent inconsistency of Underwood & Co. at State Farm Center.
See Kyle Tausk break down the victory over FAU. He does it better than I could have, so I didn’t.
Let’s shine the spotlight on Bielema’s program, and where it stands, with one-third of the season in the books.
I want to focus on three main coaches, at this juncture: Bielema, Barry Lunney, Jr. (OC) and Aaron Henry (DC).
How Lunney fared in Year 2: It’s not great, to say the least.
Before Lunney was hired before last season, he was a hot commodity. Previously the offensive coordinator at wildly successful mid-major UTSA, Lunney had a win at Illinois under his belt, along with previous coaching experience with Bielema at Arkansas, leading the tight end room.
Lunney was a clear improvement over Tony Petersen, who now calls plays for FCS Illinois State.
The Illinois defense was historically great at preventing points in Lunney’s first year, leading the entire country in PPG.
Illinois also had one of the best running backs in its history in Chase Brown carrying the ball 30+ times in multiple contests. It was difficult to assess Lunney’s impact Year 1, in 2022.
Let’s look at Year 2:
- 10th in the Big Ten in PPG (22.3), the top five average 35.5
- QB Luke Altmyer (126.8 rating) has four TDs and seven INTs
- Isaiah Williams (First-Team Preseason All-Big Ten) has ZERO TDs in four games
- Reggie Love leads with 248 (5.6 YPC), leading rusher on pace for 744 yards
- 7th in B1G in total offense, 5th in passing (246.8) and 9th in rushing
How in the blue hell can we be four games into the season and Isaiah WIlliams has ZERO touchdowns? That’s pathetic, in it of itself.
Lunney has been unable to get his playmakers the ball in space, or get Williams into the endzone. That stat alone is enough to question the direction of the offense.
Goal line play calling has been extremely suspect at best, and negligent at worst. Lunney seems to insist to run a trick play inside the Red Area.
How has Aaron Henry fared in Year 1 of his tenure as defensive coordinator: Not too bad.
Look, we have be fair to Henry. Last year was an all-time great defensive team, not only for the Illinois program, but in the Big Ten. Ryan Walters parlayed the success on the field last year to being the HBC for Purdue at only 37 years old.
Illinois plays in West Lafayette next week. That’s going to be a fun one!
After losing three defensive backs to the NFL draft (in the first three rounds), it would make some sense that Illinois would not be as elite as last season.
The front seven, lead by Preseason All-American Johnny Newton would be able to hold the fort down, so to speak.
The schedule did no favors for Henry, either. Kansas (QB Jalon Daniels) and Toledo (QB Dequan Finn) will likely be their conferences’ Offensive POY in 2023.
Here are the stats for the Illinois defense:
- 13th in Rushing Defense (177.3 YPG)
- 10th in Pass Defense (245.5 YPG)
- 13th in PPG (27.3)
PPG ranks for Penn State (#1 in Big Ten 40.3), Toledo (#1 in MAC at 42.3) and Kansas (#5 in B12 at 37.8) must be taken into consideration. Illinois has played three elite offesnes in four games.
The game that particularly stands out is Penn State. Despite the offense doing nothing, Henry’s defense kept them in the game, down only 16-7 at half. Illinois was losing the turnover battle at the half, 4-0.
I’m excited to see what Henry can muster against some Big Ten offenses. Purdue is averaging 24 PPG.
How has Bielema fared in Year 3? It’s a mixed bag.
Bielema has definitely gotten some major decisions nearly perfect. Ryan Walters as his first DC is one of them.
The uniform refresh for this year is elite. No two ways around it.
The navy on navy with orange helmets yesterday was a thing of beauty, literally and metaphorically.
Let’s get back to the comparison of Underwood and Bielema.
I’m not saying that Underwood and Bielema haven’t done a great job leading the two most important programs at the university. They’ve both gotten Illinois this far.
Bielema was extremely bullish on the offensive line this season. That has been the single-worst unit on the field for his team. Underwood thought the defense would be elite last year, as they were going to “switch everything.” Underwood abandoned the strategy before Christmas.
The parallel is uncanny.
Some of it is coach speak. I get it.
I would say that both Underwood and Bielema are super elite in press conferences. They are excellent communicators. It’s not hard to see why they both over indexed on recruiting early in their tenures.
Please take my scientific poll.
Who has done a better job with their program at Illinois?
This poll is closed
Bielema with football
Underwood with basketball
They are both equal
Both coaches have been good to decent
Both coaches have done what is reasonably be asked of them. They are both great.
This is 2-2. This is heartbreak from fall to spring. This is being a fan.
This is the University of Illinois.