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2021 opponent preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Will Bret Bielema be able to turn Illinois football into a winner?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Bret Bielema is BACK.

After three seasons in the wilderness earning pennies on the dollar so he could soak Arkansas’ buyout dry, the former Hawkeye grad has returned to where he belongs: the Big Ten.

He’s amassed a career record of 97-58, though it’s fair to wonder how much of his 68-24 (37-19) record at Wisconsin was Barry Alvarez-aided. Whether it was or not, it seems indisputable the man has a style, which simplifies to: get big up front and let your back do the rest. It worked very well at Wisconsin but less successfully at Arkansas.

Perhaps a best-case scenario for Illinois might be a facsimile of Minnesota’s first three years under PJ Fleck: 5-7, 7-6, & 11-2. Fleck hilariously branded his first season as “Year 0” and while Bielema isn’t as obvious in that sentiment, his focus on recruiting in-state lends itself to a slower build.

Is that enough about Bielema? Probably. As for Illinois, they yielded 34.9 points/game last season while scoring just 20.1 in their eight games. The better of the two ranked 97th out of 128 teams.

Illinois schedule ahead of Iowa

8/28: v. Nebraska (in Dublin, Ireland)
9/2: v. UT-San Antonio
9/11: @ Virginia
9/18: v. Maryland
9/25: @ Purdue
10/2: v. Charlotte
10/9: v. Wisconsin
10/16: BYE
10/23: @ Penn State
10/30: v. Rutgers
11/6: @ Minnesota
11/13: BYE

How funny is it that the coach who’d be the most fun in Dublin (Bielema) is coaching against the head man who’d be LEAST fun in Dublin (Scott Frost), especially after Illinois beats Nebraska? It’s a bold move to play the week after returning from abroad, but I respect the decision to move their second bye until November ahead of the Iowa game. He’s 12-10 off a bye, so it’s tough to call that an advantage ahead of the Penn State and Hawkeye games.

I like them to hit the over bye this point. Pop the champagne.

Three guys

Brandon Peters (QB, 6’5”, 230 lbs, 6th Year): Who knows if he’ll still be the starting QB at this point, but the former Michigan QB has meandered around the 50%s of completion percentage with a high TD-INT ratio in his three prior seasons of heavy duty. Last season was his worst as he completed just 48% of his passes while splitting snaps with now-wide receiver Isaiah Williams.

Maybe the change of scenery by way of new head coach will be the tonic Peters needs. He was formerly a top 50 recruit when he committed to Michigan (can you believe Jake Rudock is the best QB Jim Harbaugh has had in Ann Arbor?) and has a big arm to go along with an ability to run. If Illinois can be a poor man’s version of Wisconsin offensively, he’ll have to do a lot less.

Or maybe he’s holding a clipboard when they face off.

Chase Brown (RB, 5’11”, 205 lbs, RS So): The Western Michigan transfer is an impressive runner with short area quickness while being a load to bring down. He went for 5.2 yards per carry last season and tallied back-to-back 100-yard games in Illinois’ only wins on the season.

Last season, blowout losses kept him from getting touches in the run game, as he had just a single effort with more than 20 carries and five under 15. In Bielema’s ideal world, those are flipped as Illinois and the Illini improve substantially in time of possession (they were 111th last season).

He has the tools to become a workhorse back but will need the team to improve around them for those to matter.

Jake Hansen (LB, 6’1”, 230 lbs, 6th Year): One of Phil Steele’s preseason all-Big Ten linebackers, Hansen is a guy who’s filled up the stat sheet over his prior 3 seasons, including two as the team’s leading tackler. Over his career, he’s forced 10 fumbles, recovered 6, added 3 interceptions, and tallied 7 sacks.

His highlights show a solid run defender with an ability to react quickly to screens outside. He’ll meet guys in the gap and is a capable blitzer. Pretty much the archetypical middle linebacker in football and a solid foundation to build a defense around.

Assorted Commentary

What are both teams playing for?

By bringing back 18 starters, Illinois has the type of squad which could improve in the wins column to the point of a bowl berth. It won’t be easy, but wins are on the table for them. Iowa has their sights set a little higher - a trip to Indy - but might not be in a position to make that a reality if they sustain a couple losses earlier in the season.

Point being: the energy on this game could be very different if Illinois needs a win or two to get back to a bowl and Iowa has little else to play for (which goes a bit against type for the “never too high, never too low” Kirk Ferentz). There’s also likely to be some extra juice from Bret Bielema, who cooks with fire against Iowa.

I don’t expect Illinois to take the Hawks down but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Iowa struggles for the W.

I genuinely cannot stop thinking about this quote from Bucky’s 5th Quarter’s Q&A with @thumpasaurus1 aka Steven Braun:

Our new coach is Bret Bielema. I don’t believe he’s the smartest man, or the hardest-working, but he is so petty he makes Richard Petty look like Kyle Petty. If there’s one thing that will motivate Bert to stay sober long enough to field a competitive Illinois team, it’s the desire to spit in his hand before a victorious postgame handshake with the Wisconsin and Iowa coaching staffs. I don’t know what edge his background in Madison will give him, but if there is one, he’ll actually go all weekend without drinking to find it.

Iowa’s dominance in the series.

The winning streaks against Iowa State, Minnesota, & Nebraska get the headlines but Iowa’s won the last 7 against Illinois and 12 of the last 13, which dates back to 2003. As if those numbers aren’t enough, 9 of the 12 Hawkeye wins have come by double digits while Illinois has scored 10 or less points in 7 of those games!

Bret Bielema gives a much needed facelift to the program and knows that the way up the standings is through his neighbors to the west. While the recent history really slants in Iowa’s direction, Bielema’s history against the Hawks warrants some concern.

It just might not be this year.