Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Riverboat Gambler Bielema

Mike Cagley, Co-Host of the IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

October 16, 2022

The Illini dominated in most statistical categories to defeat the Minnesota Golden Gophers 26-14 in a game that wasn't as close as the score would have one believe. Aside from Ibrahim's running, the Gophers were impotent on offense. The Gophers were a 44-yard Ibrahim run and a kickoff return away from being shut out. Conversely, the Illini could've had as many as 42 points with a bit better play in the red zone offensively.

Heat Check #1 - Program Rebuilding Pace

Both PJ Fleck and Bret Bielema took over programs that were struggling - though Illini fans would argue that the coaching duo of Beckman followed by Lovie Smith combo almost killed Illini football. In year two of his Illinois tenure, Bret Bielema seems to be on the verge of passing up PJ Fleck's progress in developing Minnesota's football program, which is in year six.

Gabe Jacas enjoys winning especially after having 6 tackles, 5 solo and 1 sack versus Minnesota. Courtesy Illinois Athletics.

Minnesota went to the Outback Bowl after winning the Big Ten West in year three of Fleck's tenure. There is a lot of football to be played before the Illini can claim a Big Ten West title this year (if it even happens). For right now, the Golden Gophers program hasn't been able to recapture that championship title form and one could say that under Bielema, the Illini have managed to pass up the Gophers on the strength of this year's superior record (so far) and the second win in two years over the Gophers.

Coach Bielema reminded the Illini media that this year the Illini have managed to beat Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota in the same season for the first time since 1983 (when Coach Bielema was 13 years old). Illini fans might remember that 1983 season fondly as David Williams and Jack Trudeau led the Illini to a Rose Bowl berth. Unlike many coaches, it doesn't sound like Coach Bielema is satisfied with stopping after this accomplishment. His focus is on putting together a strong 5-game finish to the 2022 season to match the 7-game start of the season.

After the bye week, the Illinois schedule shapes up nicely for a five-week sprint to the finish line of the regular season with games at Nebraska, at home against Michigan State and Purdue and trips to Michigan and Northwestern. The only team that seems to be an "automatic" win is Northwestern. The Illini might be favored in all the games but the Michigan game. No one was predicting the Illini would be in the running to contend and even win the Big Ten West this season. Coach Bielema might've believed it, but he didn't express that on the record.

The season has a long way to go but the Illini at 6-1 are trending upwards and have locked in a bowl for this season. This has to be recognized as a huge accomplishment. Needless to say, the Illini and the coaching staff aren't celebrating, but Illini fans can take a moment to appreciate what has been accomplished.

Heat Check #2 - Is that Bret Maverick or Bret Bielema

The NFL has rules to protect the individuals who bet on NFL game. The collegiate football environment is different. It allows for some brinksmanship and even some good old-fashioned bluffing. In a fashion reminiscent of the old Maverick TV series (which was exponentially better than the Mel Gibson movie), Bret Bielema pulled a Bret Maverick.

James Garner as Bret Maverick.

Bret Maverick would always seek to keep his opponents in the dark as to what he was doing, how he was going to do things, and when he was going to do things. This permeated the character's life - it wasn't limited to only card-playing. We saw the same riverboat gambler approach this week in Coach Bielema.

With what seems to be an eye on making the Illini harder to prepare for, word had trickled out that Tommy was taking some snaps during practices. No one knew for certain what "some" meant. Most assumed Art would need a sizable number of snaps in practice to ensure he was ready to play if pressed into service and Tommy getting snaps was an insurance policy.

Later in the week, rumors came out that Tommy was bootless and moving fine. Moving fine is hard to define. Walking around in daily life is hardly comparable to playing football. Keeping the Gophers staff and players off balance was the objective.

According to KSTP 5's Darren Wolfson, this plan may not have worked exactly as planned. The Gophers prepared all week as if DeVito would be playing, but it appears to not have worked out so well for the Gophers. DeVito was the difference in the game as the Illini outgained the Gophers 472 to 180 in total yards and 252 to 38 in passing yards.

Heat Check #3 - FGs instead of TDs

Illini struggles in the red zone continue. The RPO plays seem to take just a second too long to develop. In football, it's very unusual to have a 15-play, 74-yard drive that chews up 5:36 seconds followed up by a 19-play, 72-yard drive that eats up another 8:05 and only see two field goals as a result - and that was just in the first half alone.

Illinois drives against Minnesota courtesy Illinois Athletics.

In the second half, the Illini gave up a long kickoff return that led to an easy Minnesota score. The Illini responded with a 15-play, 75-yard drive eating up another 6:54 - resulting in (you guessed it) a field goal. Their next drive, in the fourth quarter resulted in a 14-play, 68-yard drive that ate up 6:44 - for another field goal. With Minnesota only able to gain yards via Mo Ibrahim on the ground, they were not able to sustain drives. The Illini's lack of touchdowns didn't hurt them. If you change those 4 field goals to touchdowns, the Illini would have won this 42-14 with relative ease.

The Illini cannot afford to leave 4 points on the table per drive as the season progresses. Teams like Purdue and Michigan will make you pay for scoring field goals as they respond with touchdowns. As a long-suffering Cowboy fan, the propensity of scoring via field goals reminds me of a Jason Garrett offense which seemed to have the field goal as their signature play.

One has to tip their cap to Fabrizio Pinton for going 7-7 since replacing Caleb Griffin. Without his execution, the Illini very well could be looking straight into a two-game losing streak as they go into the bye week.



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