Last year, the Illinois Fighting Illini ended the year with eight wins and tickets punched for a bowl game in Tampa against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Despite some close losses, the Illini were strong contenders for the Big Ten West Division title until the final game of the season.
But you wouldn’t have guessed that from the way they played on Sept. 2, 2022 against the Indiana Hoosiers: Illinois squandered a nearly 200-yard rushing effort from Chase Brown by turning the ball over four times and committing eight penalties for 81 yards in a 23-20 defeat.
The Indiana game last year fit within the longstanding trend of even very talented Illini teams struggling mightily when they leave Memorial Stadium for the first time in a season, no matter who they’re playing against. It’s a problem that stretches across the tenures of three different head coaches and has no easily discernible cause, but it’s impossible to ignore at this point.
If I had to settle on a start date for this curse, then I’d probably go with the initial road game in 2012 against the Arizona State Sun Devils, in which the Illini were routed 45-14. Granted, the 2012 Illini were a miserable team, but it was still the second-worst loss of that awful season by margin of defeat, and the Illini had just beaten the Sun Devils in Champaign the year prior.
The next season, it was a 10-point loss at Soldier Field against the Washington Huskies. Then in 2014, it was a 44-19 loss to those same Huskies in Seattle, despite that year’s Illini going on to finish 6-6 with a win over the Penn State Nittany Lions. In 2015, Illinois lost their first road game of the year by a crushing 48-14 margin in Chapel Hill against the North Carolina Tarheels, while in 2016 Illinois played competitively but came up short against the then-No. 15 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Things only got worse during the Lovie Smith era. In 2017, the Illini lost 47-23 in Tampa against UCF, then lost to them again the following year at Soldier Field by a score of 25-19 (can you see why we stopped playing non-conference games at Soldier Field?).
Only in 2019 can you find a victory for the Illini in their first road game of the year, when they narrowly defeated the UConn Huskies 31-23 in East Hartford in a game that was much closer than the final score would indicate. That Illini team would go on to upset the then-No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers and play in the Redbox Bowl, while UConn would finish the year 2-10.
The 2020 Illini opened their abbreviated season in Madison with a disastrous 45-7 loss during the “Graham Mertz Game,” and the 2021 team saw the worst loss of Bret Bielema’s Illinois tenure in Charlottesville at the hands of the Virginia Cavaliers (42-14).
With that history in mind, you can see the very clear pattern at play here: no matter how talented the Illini are at the time or who they’re playing, they will always struggle mightily and play uncharacteristically poor football during first road trip of the year.
How can this trend be fixed?
Not easily. But Bret Bielema is the right person to do it.
Tim Beckman was largely clueless as a head coach and his teams showed it, while Lovie Smith did a number of things well (most of the current team’s star players originally committed to Lovie), but he too often failed to emphasize the fundamentals.
Bielema has been a college coach throughout his career, and knows what it takes to build a team that isn’t rattled by opposing fans or unfamiliar circumstances. This current roster is also very experienced, since almost every key contributor on the team has made multiple road trips to face Power-5 level opponents. Experience is key, and the Illini have it with this team.
Will it be enough to break the trend this week? I’m honestly doubtful, but who knows.
Jalon Daniels is an outstanding quarterback, but we don’t know if he’ll be at 100% in his return for the Jayhawks. Also, Lawrence isn’t exactly an intimidating road environment for opposing football teams. This road funk needs to be broken eventually, and what better time to do it than the week before a matchup with Penn State that could have the eyes of the college football universe turning to Champaign.