Heat Checks & Hail Marys - Bielema Puts the B1G on Notice

Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy

Cover photo courtesy of Steve Apps for the State Journal.

October 2, 2022

Bret Bielema downplayed the fact this was his first game returning to Wisconsin where he so capably led the Badgers from 2006 to 2012. In seven years under Bielema, the Badgers won 7 games, 8 games, 9 games, 10 games, 11 games (twice), and 12 games once appearing in three Rose Bowls and finishing as high as 5th in the national rankings. From 2006 to 2011, current Badger Coach Paul Chryst served as Bielema's Quarterback Coach and Offensive Coordinator. Last year, the Illini played the Badgers in Champaign and the old master was defeated by his protégé. This time, the old master dominated the protégé in the old master's return to Madison. And a warning shot was sent to the rest of the B1G conference, just like the message Illini basketball coach Brad Underwood sent to B1G 10 basketball coaches, there's a new sheriff running the Illini program - and he's here to win.

Hail Mary #1 -  Chasing the Doak Walker Award and Possibly, the Heisman

Chase Brown is busy re-writing the Illini football record book. His 129 yards rushing, added to his nation leading total of 733. He extended his 100 yards or more in a game streak to six, extending the Illini record at the same time. He is also the only Illini back to open a season with five straight games rushing for over 100 yards. This game was his 11th career 100-yard game, the fourth most in Illini history. He is most likely the early season leader for the Doak Walker Award (for the nation's best running back) and if the Illini keep winning, he may be a contender for the Heisman (for the nation's most outstanding college player). Neither award has ever been won by a Fighting Illini player. The voting for those postseason awards are a long ways away and the Illini have to worry about taking care of business each week for Chase to contend for either award, so Coach Bielema's job is to keep the team focused on each week's game. It's a cliché but sometimes clichés are true.

It is clear Chase Brown is confident in the team and he talked about the confidence the Illini have in themselves, "It's been there the entire time. We trust the play calls, we're following the scheme, and we're getting better. The fact we were able to do it here for the first time in 20 years feels really good." Illini fans had to agree with Brown, especially after handing the Badgers a 34-10 loss at home.

Next week, the Illini go up against an even better defense as Iowa comes to Memorial Stadium to visit. If Chase can extend his 100-yard rushing streak another game while the Illini win, that would be a massive statement to award voters across the country.

Hail Mary #2 - The Mother of All Third Quarters

Brian Hightower vs Wisconsin courtesy David Craan Illinois Athletics

The Fighting Illini defense gave up 10 yards (not points and not first downs, yards) in the third quarter. The Badgers longest plays from scrimmage were three yard runs by Chez Mellusi and Chimere Dike. Graham Mertz had three incompletions including one on a key 4th and 2 attempt at the Illini 47-yard line. The highlight of the quarter for the Badgers was a 55 yard punt by Andy Vujnovich. When that is the highlight of a team's offensive and special teams, it's been a really bad quarter.

Conversely, the Illini offense received the opening kickoff with a 14-10 lead and turned on the jets that would send the team into the stratosphere and leave the Badgers behind. The Illini were coldly efficient with the ball in the 3rd quarter:

  • The Illini opened the quarter with a 10 play, 75 yard drive for a touchdown to go up 21-10. This drive was a demonstration of teamwork. Brown had three runs, DeVito completed passes to three different Illini targets, Reggie Love got a rushing attempt and the newly minted rushing touchdown maker, Tommy DeVito, scored his third rushing touchdown of the game (and in a row).
  • After a muffed kickoff, where Isaac Guerendo dropped and then accidentally kicked the ball to Michael Marchese who recovered it on the Wisconsin 16, the Illini lost ten yards in three plays, but managed to score on a 44-yard Caleb Griffin field goal. The Illini were now up 24-10. The way the Badgers offense was playing, 14 points seemed like a nearly infinite lead for the Illini.
  • The Illini took the ball after a Wisconsin punt and went 70 yards in four plays. Two passes from DeVito to Pat Bryant sandwiched between a 4 yard and 49 yard touchdown run by Chase Brown and for all intensive purposes, the game was over with the Illini owning a 31-10 lead.
  • The Illini closed out the quarter by chewing up the last 4:36 of time on their way to an early fourth quarter field goal that would end the scoring at 34-10.

By any measure, the third quarter was a total Illini domination. Unlike past Illini games, this domination ended with points at the end of Illini drives. Drives like that are the template for how Bret Bielema's Illini should successfully finish games and opponents - by dominating in all facets of the game.

Hail Mary #3 - Iowa is Next, How Many Fans will be in the Memorial Stadium Stands

The Illini have been plagued by low attendance. Most of this issue is caused by the fact the team is on a decade long streak of not having a winning season.

Many Illini fans have Illini Football PTSD. This is a phenomenon we have discussed on the IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular radio show. An easy definition of Illini Football PTSD is a fan's hesitation to fully commit to supporting the team due to all the false starts or even "never starts" that have plagued the Illini football program for decades since John Mackovic left for Texas. Sure, there have a been a few good years, 2001's Sugar Bowl season and 2007's Rose Bowl season come to mind, but for the most part, the Illini have struggled on and off the football field.

This season is different. The Illini have their best football coach since John Mackovic prowled the sidelines from 1988-91. Bret Bielema knows what he needs to do to win in the Big Ten. He's already done it successfully for nearly a decade when he was at Wisconsin. Bielema has also taken time to study with coaches like Bill Belichick. This has resulted in an incredible attention to detail and even a willingness to adapt his beliefs and strategies, based on evidence, in order to win games.

The Illini could use a fantastic crowd to support their effort against the Hawkeyes next Saturday night (October 8) with a 6:30 pm kick off time. This current team has little to nothing to do with the failures of the past. Instead, they are blazing the trail for the winning teams of the future. Right now, there are only two questions to answer:

  1. Can this Illini team win big this year?
  2. Once the Illini start winning, how long will the winning last?

Grab a ticket, if you are looking to make a memory that you will never forget. Many older Illini fans still remember the home games in 1983 with amazing clarity. This may be the first chance to match those memories for many younger Illini fans.

Hail Mary #4 - IlliniGuys & Blind Pig Brewery Tailgate on October 8th

Be sure to go to IlliniGuys.com to get information on the IlliniGuys & Blind Pig Brewery Tailgate before the Iowa game. You can come out and meet Brad Sturdy, Kedric Prince, maybe Matt Stevens, and me at the IlliniGuys and Blind Pig Brewery tent.

 

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