Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy
November 21, 2021
The Illini traveled to Iowa City, minus their head coach, Bret Bielema, and a few key players including defensive linemen Rod Woods and Jamal Perry, leaving the defensive line very thin against a veteran Iowa offensive line.
The Illini started quickly going up 10-0 and even scoring a touchdown on their first possession of the game. The game turned on a 100 yard kickoff return by Iowa's Charlie Jones. That play coupled with the pick-6 interception by Iowa's Jack Campbell, provided Iowa their margin of victory in their 33-23 victory. Even if once were to take those two plays away - and give back the field goal the Hawkeyes gave up after a mishandled snap by their punter, Tory Taylor - and that 11 point swing means the Illini defense gave up enough points to win the game by one 23-22.
This game was won in the trenches. The Illini offensive line couldn't get the punch they needed to run the ball effectively. The depleted Illini defensive line gave up too many rushing yards to the Hawkeyes. Yet despite these challenges, the future is bright for the Illini.
The Illini need a quarterback to lead next year's team. The Illini need a quarterback who can put the ball in the air and on target when it matters. They need someone who can take the pressure off of the Illini running game and pull defenses out of the box.
The Illini need wide receivers who can get separation. Isaiah Williams needs more weapons around him to make sure that he isn't blanketed by two defensive backs every play. The defense needs to be kept off balance and honest. That's not an easy task but, it needs to be one that is executed. Quarterbacks cannot always be required to throw every pass perfectly. There needs to be more margin for error.
The Illini need a few offensive linemen to help transition their evolution to the huge offensive lineman that Coach Bielema is famous for recruiting out of high school. Most of these linemen need time to mature and grow into their role. The transfer portal can allow that to happen.
On the other side of the line, defensive linemen are needed as well. The defense has played well this year, but they need depth and will need to continue to stockpile linemen to move up the ladder in the B1G West.
Michigan State had a lot to sell last off season and did it well. Time for the Illini to replicate that performance. Pray to the Transfer Portal gods for a bountiful harvest!
Northwestern has defeated the Illini the last six times the two teams have played each other. During this streak, the Illini have only scored over 20 points once - and that was a paltry 21 points om s 42-21 loss back in 2016.
The Illini have a chance to play in a bowl if they win against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium next Saturday at 2:30 pm. There is no certainty that the Illini could earn a bowl berth, but the chance to gain the extra practices, to sell a bowl appearance to recruits and to set the precedent for achievement are far too positive to allow a struggling Northwestern team to take that away.
There is no doubt head coach Pat Fitzgerald will be looking to do just that. The Illini must not allow him to do so.
Let's look back at the first year record of Illini coaches starting back to the first year results beginning with Jim Valek who's first year in 1967:
Year one of the Bielema Era has been better than any of the head coaches the Illini have hired since Lou Tepper took over in 1992. Bill Cubit was an interim coach and in fairness, he also looks good compared to some of the challenges other Illini head coaches have dealt with in year one.
With the transfer portal, the staff has a chance to accelerate the Illini's return to B1G western relevance. If return is even the right word.
Beat Northwestern and earn a chance to win a sixth game in Bielema's inaugural season. And it will move Bielema up to the 6 victories that are the best posted by first year coaches in 54 years (tied with Mackovic and Tepper).
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