Heat Checks and Hail Marys – Complacency is the Illini Enemy

Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

October 17, 2023

The Illini victory on the road against Maryland was definition of unexpected. Only one of the IlliniGuy pregame predictions had the Illini losing by less than ten points – everyone else had the loss by more than ten points. No one had the Illini winning.

Instead of another disappointing game and even a blowout loss on the road, the Illini football team played in the manner that most Illini fans expected the Illini to play when the season started. The Illini kept turnovers to a minimum. They cut out the foolish penalties. The punched the ball over the goal line when it was required of them.

After two losses to teams that on paper appeared to be inferior to the Illini, the Illini beat a team that has appeared to be much better than the Illini. The frustration of what might have been has to be set aside as a lot of hard work remains over the last five games to consider this season a success.

Heat Check #1 – The Door is Open

The door is open for the Illini to earn their way to a bowl bid. The sentence didn’t say the Illini are going bowling. The door is open and the Illini have to step through. Five teams will try to stop them.

With five games left (vs. Wisconsin, at Minnesota, vs. Indiana, at #24 Iowa, and vs. Northwestern) and the Illini owning a 3-4 record, there are no guarantees. The Illini need to win 3 of 5 to make it to a bowl and have a chance to get to two straight bowl games for the first time since 2010 and 2011. These two bowl wins (the last two the program has experienced) enabled the only back-to-back winning seasons since 1989 and 1990.

This is the time to acknowledge the progress that has been made from the two disappointing losses mentioned above (Purdue and Nebraska). Reward the players for a job well done. Then, turn the page to deal with a Wisconsin team that must be smarting from having its offense thoroughly derailed by a formidable Iowa defense.

The opportunity is there for a bowl game, but the team cannot allow complacency to creep in – especially after just a single win. They must repeat the positive performances of the Maryland game against a Wisconsin team that quite frankly is not as good as Maryland.

The battle for a successful season hasn’t ended, it’s only just begun.

Complacency is the Illini enemy.

Heat Check #2 – Repeat the Positives

There were a ton of positives for the Illini against Maryland. Things that Illini fans thought they would see on a regular basis. Many of these things need to be “reinstated” as regularly occurring events on Saturdays for Illini football.

  • The Illini only had 1 turnover against Maryland.
  • They had only committed five penalties for 45 yards.
  • The Illini only gave the Terps 1 first down via Illini penalties.
  • Kaden Feagin emerged as a positive force for the Illini as a true freshman, gaining 84 yards and continuing his streak of not having a carry for negative yards this season.
  • The Illini offensive line, while not perfect, allowed more clean pockets for Luke Altmyer and provided the muscle needed to punch in the ball for a touchdown in a goal line situation.
  • The defense responded with three sacks as Seth Coleman returned to form aided by his teammates Johnny Newton and Bryce Barnes in a true team effort.
  • Illini return men proved to be a threat as Wilcher had a kickoff return for 43 yards and Williams averaged 27.5 yards per punt return.

The trick is to not let all these players think they’ve reached a destination. They’re on a journey and it’s not over yet. In truth, they're not even past the halfway point if a bowl game is earned.

Complacency is the Illini enemy.

Heat Check #3 – The Illini Have to Own Football 101

Bret Bielema instructs players on Football 101. This subject describes the complimentary football game plan that is a road map for teams to win. Mundane topics like limiting turnovers, limiting penalties, excelling on special teams, controlling the clock, dominating the line of scrimmage and managing the down and distance can be assets to win football games.

To some, this may sound like a string of cliches. To them, it's the equivalent of the modern version of blocking and tackling wins games.

To Bret Bielema it comes down to these numbers: 12, 9, 7, 10, 11, 11, 8 – those are the number of wins his teams won at Wisconsin, the very team the Illini are facing this weekend. His 60% winning percentage at Wisconsin is proof of concept that his Football 101 works.

There are a lot of coaches on the Illini staff who have ties back to Wisconsin. They’ll say that this game is just another game. Luke Fickell will see a past Wisconsin coach prowling the sidelines along with an analyst that he wanted to be his defensive coordinator game planning for the guys on the other side of the field. Fickell will also say it’s just another game.

It is and it isn’t. The team that most successfully executes Football 101 will most likely win the game. The team that wins the game will have a much more direct path to a bowl bid. The team that wins the game will have the satisfaction of looking across the field knowing they got the best of the staff that really wanted to beat them (for many reasons).

The Illini must own Football 101. The Maryland game is over. How bad do they want to beat the Badgers? We will see on Saturday.

Complacency is the Illini enemy.

 

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