By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
September 2, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)
Game Preview: Indiana at Illinois
Date/Time/Place: Friday, Sept. 2, 2022: 7 p.m. CST, Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Indiana
Surface: Field Turf
Records: Illinois 1-0; Indiana 0-0
Betting Line: Indiana by 1.5.
Series notes: Illinois leads the all-time series 44-24-3 but has lost each of the last three times the teams have played and is 15-15-3. Illinois head coach Bret Bielema is 7-0 all-time vs. Indiana dating back to his time as the Wisconsin head coach. Illinois has won three of the four games that have served as season openers for IU. The two teams are meeting for the first time since 2017 and the first time in Bloomington since 2013.
TV: FS1; Tim Brando (PBP), Spencer Tillman (analyst)
Radio (Illinois): Brian Barnhart (PBP), Martin O'Donnell (analysis), Michael Martin (sidelines) & Steve Kelly (Pre/HT/Post) » The broadcast can be heard live on TuneIn online radio, Sirius/ XM satellite radio & SiriusXM Internet and at FightingIllini.com.
Indiana saw the secrecy Illinois implemented last year in its Big Ten Conference opening win over Nebraska and has decided to try and use it against them in 2022.
Truth be told, the Hoosiers have taken the world of football paranoia to a new level prior to its season opener tonight as Indiana head coach Tom Allen eliminated any opportunity for anybody not among his roster or coaching staff to visually see any preseason practices. No practices were open to the public, administration or boosters. Indiana were the only Big Ten school to not have a televised spring game months before they were to take the field against the Illini. Per Allen’s directive, a depth chart was not released either at the end of spring practices or in the week leading up to tonight’s game (7 p.m. CST, FS1).
If any information is leaked out about Indiana’s practices, a directive from Allen, who is entering his seventh season leading the Hoosiers program, is to be first notified before that player or coach can speak on the matter.
“Our ultimate goal is to win that first game,” Indiana offensive coordinator Walt Bell said with a smile. “As little as we can possibly let Illinois know is probably good for us.”
“We have to protect the organization and make sure we’re putting our team in the best position we can,” Bell says. “We’re going to be really quiet and work on us.”
When asked over two weeks ago by local media about obvious starters for the game tonight against Illinois (1-0), Bell, who was fired last year as head coach at the University of Massachusetts, replied with the most innocuous comment he could think of.
“We’ll go out against Illinois and on the first play there will be 11 people,” Bell says. “There will be somebody catching the snap.”
Indiana is used to opening its seasons under Allen with a Big Ten as this is the first time his program will do this in his previous six campaigns and is the third straight season Indiana won’t be easing into its September schedule as a double-digit favorite in a non-conference game. Under Allen, Indiana has opened with No. 2 Ohio State in 2017, No. 8 Penn State in 2020 and at No. 17 Iowa last season.
So, Allen has decided that if the Big Ten Conference is going to force Indiana to open with a league opponent once more, he’s going to try to play games with the Illini coaching staff in a year where he has hired two new coordinators on both sides of the football.
“When there’s those question marks, it creates multiple options you have to prepare for, which detracts from the focus you really want to have,” Allen said. “It doesn't really matter to me (what fans or boosters think about the plan). It's what we're going to do. The whole goal is what we feel is best for our team. We're going to stick with it.”
At this point, secrecy is all Indiana has going for it as the Hoosiers are trying to forget what was a miserable 2021 campaign, Injuries and eight losses by double digits contributed to a 2-10 record, ruining the high hopes generated from a program that surprised many by going 6-2 in the coronavirus pandemic shortened 2020 season.
When Allen closed his entire operation for the spring and didn’t put a spring game on television for the third consecutive season, Bielema and his Illini coaching staff knew exactly what they were in for from a preparation standpoint.
“I think the spring game world is so diluted now because of the publicity they get and I know I was guarded in what we did in our spring game because of the opportunity to conceal what we doing offensively,” Bielema said Wednesday. “I get it. And to be quite honest, each coach has to make individual decisions.”
And in a strange way, Bielema has almost been tipping his cap to Allen for stealing a page out of his notes from last year when restricted access from practice in the spring and fall to not give Nebraska head coach Scott Frost any inside information before his Illini coaching debut in 2021. The plan worked as Illinois won 30-22 and Frost said after the game that his staff had prepared for a different defensive scheme throughout preseason training camp and were forced to make adjustments on the fly early in the game in Champaign.
In an attempt to fall into the same trap he set for Nebraska last season, Bielema consistently said during preseason training camp that his squad was preparing for Wyoming and Indiana at similar times because of the quick turnaround from a Saturday afternoon game to a Friday night contest.
“We changed our Sunday routine up to kind of minimize the amount of transition time. Even though it’s a short week, by theory, because we’re playing on Friday, it hadn’t shortened our preparation,” Bielema said. “We had a couple days of spring preparation. We had three days of fall preparation on Indiana. We’re actually walking into a Tuesday tomorrow at practice ahead of where we would be in a big way, by multiple days, in our preparation. Hopefully that’s going to play dividends.”
Indiana has almost all new personnel in its offense as Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak is expected to share a backfield with Power Five Conference transfer running backs Shaun Shivers (Auburn) and Josh Henderson (North Carolina) expected to lead the way after the departure of the team's top four running backs. Former quarterback Donaven McCulley moved to wide receiver in the spring. McCulley will be joined by returning starter D.J. Matthews but his 2021 campaign ended just four games in due to a knee injury. North Carolina transfer Emery Simmons and junior college product Cam Camper will also be expected to compete for playing time at receiver.
On the flip side to all this secrecy, Bielema and the Illini put 60 minutes of action on tape for everybody to see last weekend as Illinois opened 2022 with a 38-6 win over Wyoming. When asked if he was trying a vanilla base defense knowing Indiana would be watching and taking notes, Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters took the opposite approach.
“So, there’s two ways to look at that really,” Walters said. “Sometimes you want to show a lot so that new opponent has way too much to prepare for and has to guess on what you’ll bring out against them,” Walters said. “And by doing that, you get a sense of what you think you can execute in that situation because you’ve already repped it and hopefully felt success with it in a game environment. I know with Walt Bell, I’ve watched a lot of UMass, Florida State (where he was an offensive coordinator in 2018) and a lot of Maryland (OC in 2016-17).”
Watch: Illini-Michigan State highlightsRead
Watch: Illini Women's Basketball Michigan State Post GameRead
Watch: Illinois-Wisconsin highlightsRead
I on the Illini - Badgers Bullied in Madison #215Read
Watch: Illini coach Brad Underwood talks about the road win over WisconsinRead
IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular - January 27 Weekend (S2,Ep24)Read
Watch: Illini coach Brad Underwood previews game at WisconsinRead
Watch: Illini coach Shauna Green talks about Purdue lossRead
Watch: Illini coach Shauna Green's pregame press conference before Purdue gameRead
I on the Illini - Illini Back on Track, Beating Ohio State 69-60 #214Read
Watch: Illini-Ohio State highlightsRead
Watch: Illini coach Brad Underwood post-game conference after Ohio State winRead
Watch: Terrence Shannon Jr. & Coleman Hawkins talk about Ohio State winRead
Watch: Illini coach Brad Underwood's pregame news conference before meeting Ohio StateRead
IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular - January 20 Weekend (S2,Ep23)Read