116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Much to his credit, Bret Bielema was prepared for this exact scenario. Any head coach worth a thing has to be in this day and age, honestly.
The Illinois football coach will not be able to return to his alma mater this weekend, missing Saturday’s Illinois-Iowa game at Kinnick Stadium because he has COVID-19.
Bielema sad this week he has experienced only mild symptoms, and he sounded good during a Thursday Zoom press conference with reporters from his home, where he is isolated from his wife and two young daughters, all of whom have tested negative.
Assistant head coach/wide receivers coach George McDonald is de facto head coach for Saturday’s game. He played at Illinois and has an extensive resume that includes stints in Power Five programs North Carolina State, Miami (Fla.), Syracuse, Minnesota and Stanford, as well as the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
“It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s a tribute to our staff and Coach B,” McDonald said. “He’s always prepared, and he’s had a plan in place. I kind of just took his direction and his lead and kept going on this week in preparing the guys just like he was here.”
Bielema was an assistant coach in the NFL last season with the New York Giants and said he worked closely with head coach Joe Judge on a COVID contingency plan.
“Talked to several people he had conversed with in the NFL,” Bielema said. “Then when I came to college, just knowing in the spring it might happen, I talked about it and also talked to a couple of Big Ten coaches and other coaches who have gone through it last year and this year.”
Bielema said defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen strictly will deal with those particular duties against Iowa. Pat Ryan, a longtime successful prep coach in the state and the program’s Illinois High School Relations director, has been involved for the first time this season in game preparation.
Senior Analyst John Marinelli will wear Bielema’s headset and act as a game day liaison.
“He’s literally going to be nothing but the functionality of what we need to have get done,” Bielema said. “He’s on the sidelines with me throughout the whole course of the year, we work closely on game day. He might give me thoughts or advice on ‘Hey, we have two timeouts left, they’ve got three.’ I ask him to relay to me certain information during the course of the week.
“He’s got a better understanding of what I do on game day than any other coach in the program.”
Illinois (4-6) needs to beat Iowa and Northwestern next week at home in its regular-season finale to become bowl eligible. The Illini had last week off, after upsetting then-No. 20 Minnesota in Minneapolis the week before, 14-6.
Iowa fans certainly don’t need any reminders of what happened the last time their team played a team coming off a bye week. That was Purdue, which sautéed the Hawkeyes back on Oct. 16 at Kinnick Stadium, 24-7.
That was Iowa’s first loss. The Hawkeyes come in here 8-2 and needing to win their final two games to still have a shot at winning the Big Ten West and a spot in the conference championship game.
“Lot of respect for Iowa and how they play,” Bielema said. “The key for us is to play our game, right? What we practiced Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday of this week. Even going back to last week with our bye week. We watched them play Minnesota. There were things that definitely came up in that game that are nuances. Obviously the first complete game with a new quarterback (Alex Padilla). But, for the most part, Iowa is very efficient with the turnover margin. When they’re at home, they’re pretty hard to defeat when they win the turnover margin. They play extremely well with ball control. So we’ve got to understand that going into the game. We’ve got to do what we do.
“Defensively, keep the ball in front of us, tackle well, apply pressure to the quarterback. Disruption through either the tackles or the ball in the air or the ground game. Really capitalize on the moments and be great in critical situations.”
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