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Bret Bielema is ailing, but his Illinois football program isn’t
Illini have made great strides in Bielema’s first year as their coach
IOWA CITY — Illinois wasn’t supposed to still have hopes of earning bowl eligibility this late in the football season.
Not this year. Not this soon in Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Illini’s head coach.
Bielema took over a program that went 2-6 a year ago, allowed 34.9 points per game, and hadn’t had a winning season since 2011. The Illini are 4-6 with the chance to go 6-6.
Illinois certainly wasn’t supposed to beat two ranked teams on the road, but did just that at Penn State and Minnesota.
Now the Illini are coming to Kinnick Stadium Saturday, and with a defense as stingy as Iowa’s. That’s right. Illinois has allowed 17.6 points per Big Ten game, Iowa 17.9.
“They've got a good scheme,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “It's a good system. … a tough scheme to get ready for.”
You see Iowa with its No. 18 AP ranking and status as a 12.5-point favorite and think it should win Saturday. Then you remember what its 124th-ranked offense has done against good defenses.
If it’s any comfort to you Hawkeye people, Illinois’ offense is No. 117 and is 124th in passing offense.
Defense and special teams, as we’re keenly aware around here, can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Hence, Iowa’s 8-2 record, and Illinois climbing to competence with the same strengths.
What Iowa and its Big Ten West peers didn’t want was Illinois attaining that competence as quickly as it has. Bielema hired away defensive coordinator Ryan Walters from Missouri last winter. His defense has allowed a total of three touchdowns over three Big Ten road games.
“Defensively, what Ryan and our defensive staff overall, and our defensive players have been able to accomplish is pretty noticeable,” Bielema said Monday.
Sunday, Illinois announced Walters was given a raise and a contract extension through 2014. He was bumped to $1.05 million for the 2022 season, with $100,000 raises in the two following seasons.
That put Walters third among Big Ten defensive coordinators in pay, though the week still is young. In case you were concerned, there will be no need to hold a telethon for Iowa’s Phil Parker. He has a rolling two-year contract worth at least $2.2 million through the 2022 season.
So Illinois isn’t playing around. It’s a program in a state with four times more people than Iowa, but it’s had just two winning records in Big Ten play since 1999, Ferentz’s first season as the Hawkeyes’ coach.
“I think Bret knows what it takes to win in this conference, certainly,” Ferentz said.
“And he’s from (Illinois), so I'm sure he'll do a really good job. And they've got a really good staff of coaches. That's very evident watching on film.
“Their whole organization is really good. I think you could probably win anywhere, if you have the right people. That's where it starts.”
The Hawkeyes have 25 players from Illinois, including tight end Sam LaPorta and starting defensive linemen Noah Shannon and Logan Lee. Bielema wants to impose some border control.
“The message we've said from Day 1 (is) about controlling the state and being able to keep the players we want here at home,” Bielema said. “We're not going to bat 1,000 percent but we sure as hell better try. There are players on that (Iowa) roster that I wish were here.”
In April, Bielema hired Pat Ryan as his director of Illinois high school relations. Ryan is an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer who coached Metamora High — 15 miles from Peoria — to seven state-championship games.
Bielema also assigned each of his assistants one region in the state, with the duty of contacting every high school program within it.
The Illini didn’t have a game last week. Bielema and his coaches hit the road to recruit.
“It was very positive at all levels — high school, junior college and conversations with kids in the transfer portal,” Bielema said.
Tuesday, Bielema announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 and wouldn’t be with his team the rest of this week. Want to bet his team isn’t a 12.5-point underdog when he finally visits his Iowa alma mater as Illinois’ coach, in 2023?
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