Happy Thursday, Illinois Land!
We are now in the throes of the Big Ten conference football schedule. For Illinois, and head coach Bret Bielema, that means six of the last eight games will be against Big Ten West foes, starting with Purdue in West Lafayette on Saturday (2:30 p.m., Peacock).
If you’re wondering what Peacock is, you’re not in a gigantic minority. Ask you kids, grand kids or someone younger than 25.
It’s the streaming-only affiliate of NBC.
Don’t check your local listings, check your local app store.
Here’s our fearless leader, Stephen Cohn, directing you there and explaining the details, along with other things to watch on Peacock to pass the time.
Not only is the first divisional game on the road, it’s against Ryan Walters. Last year’s football squad was the stingiest in the land with points, and Walters was perhaps the key cog for the success.
Before we get all the way into the Purdue matchup, and what it all means for Illinois’ chances to win the division, please take the 4 minutes to read the Incomparable Mihir Chavan’s breakdown of EPA and the story behind the story with the Illinois offense.
Now, back to the task at hand, beating Purdue.
Week 5 will be an excellent barometer to see how far Bielema’s program has actually come, from an objective standpoint.
While you take a second to go back and read that headline again, remind yourself that this is now year three of Bielema, and he and his Illini are well ahead of schedule. Be honest with yourself.
You didn’t really see this coming this quickly.
When Bielema hire the aforementioned Walters when he arrived in Champaign, Mizzou basically packed his bags and bought his airfare. It was widely viewed as a back-page hire, the kind that you make when you’re Illinois football.
In college football, it’s about the head coach 99.9% of the time. Great head coaches produce and develop other head coaches. Bielema is no exception to this.
It was not ideal that Walters bolted for Purdue, but is also not the end of the world as we know it (cue R.E.M).
Bielema is still here as the HBC. He needs to win his first road game in the Big Ten this year to regain the respect he had around the league when his team got out of the gates to a 7-1 start last season.
Since that 7-1 opening to the 2022 season, Bielema’s squad is 3-6, with several of the games not being particularly close and/or home games.
It’s not literally a must-win game in Week 5, but it’s about as close as it can get at this juncture of the season. The Big Ten West is wide-ass open.
Two things can be true at once. The opening four games were difficult, but disappointing.
Few, if any, prognosticators picked the Illini to beat Penn State at home. That was not a shocking result. Kansas was certainly seen as a toss-up before the year started.
The Illini were blown out in both games, largely because the offense was inept in the first half of both contests.
This was Luke Altmyer’s first real look at a real-life NFL-style defense, with players more than capable of playing at the next level.
It seemed like no one was ever open, regardless of down and distance. Is it just me, or does Altmyer never have an easy throw. Like never ever.
No check downs. No screens. Very few slants, and even few deep balls.
The top is always on the opposing defense. You can’t run crossing routes on the same side of the field with all three wide receivers in perpetuity and expect them to get open. It’s too easy to cover.
Lunney and Bielema will need more out of their offensive line to reach up and take the brass ring that is the Big Ten West.
I get it. It’s not easy to score points at will with limited personnel along the offensive line. As I stated on Sunday, Bielema was wildly bullish of the ability and potential production from his O-line.
Barry Lunney, Jr. has to figure it out. I mean, I think he does. Doesn’t he?
It’s not all his fault, clearly.
Isaiah Williams has GOT TO find his way into the endzone on Saturday. It’s beyond imagination that 1 hasn’t located the painted this far into 2023.
It is 100% on Lunney to scheme him for six. For the love of all that is holy, try something different, Barry.
Lunney’s squad was effective running the ball in Week 4 versus an overmatched FAU squad, racking up over 200 yards and more than six yards a carry. It won’t come as easy during Big Ten play.
Easy yards and easy first downs will be worth their weight in gold moving forward.
Let’s look at the task at hand, realistically.
Here is the remaining schedule for the Illini. Tell me where the unwinnable game is on the schedule. I’ll hang up and listen.
- BYE WEEK
Rotating home and road games, with a bye week sandwiched perfectly among the eight contests. The games are not only winnable, I could pretty easily argue that the road game against Maryland is going to be the toughest of the bunch.
If, and it is a HUMUNGOUS if, Lunney and Bielema can find a way to be at least above average on offense, they could go on an extended heater to end the season much like they one they started 2022 on, that I mentioned earlier.
Please take my scientific poll.
How many wins will Illinois get the final eight conference games in 2023?
This poll is closed
4 or 5
Who knows? The offense cannot be trusted.
I predicted Illinois would 10 games in 2023. It was bold, but not ridiculous.
This is still the Big Ten West. This is what an expectation feels like. This is what we thought it was.
This is Illinois football.