Column | Why can’t Illinois replicate Indiana’s blueprint?


Ryan Ash

Bret Bielema walks onto the field during the footballs game against UTSA on Sept. 4. Illinois’s football team works on getting into a groove to play with this season.

By Carson Gourdie, Sttaff Writer

Indiana is as big of a basketball school as you get. Bobby Knight. Isiah Thomas. Five national championships. Assembly Hall. But can you tell me much of their football history? From 1995 to 2013, they made only one bowl game. One of the best quarterbacks in its school history —Antwaan Randle El — is most famous for throwing a touchdown for the Steelers in the Super Bowl. 

If I went up to an Indiana fan in 2013 and said, “Hey, from 2014-2020, you will make four bowl games, almost make the College Football Playoff in 2020 and be preseason-ranked in 2021,” that person wouldn’t believe me. It’s because they had no track record. What would be the reason to believe that claim? Well, Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass made fundamental choices that turned Indiana into a consistent bowl contender. 

Glass hired the high-scoring Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who helped lead the Sooners to a 54-15 record and four Big 12 titles. Wilson experienced immense growing pains with the Hoosiers. But finally, with the help of hiring Tom Allen and creating one of the highest scoring offenses in the conference, Wilson finished off his tenure with two consecutive bowl games since 1991. Now, under the leadership of Allen, Indiana has taken another step forward, with an 8-5 season in 2019, a 6-2 season in 2020 and a preseason ranking in 2021. 

Why can’t Illinois be as good as Indiana? The state of Indiana produces far less talent than the state of Illinois. Indiana resides in a division with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State. Illinois has superior football facilities compared to Indiana. Indiana and Illinois are both basketball schools. On paper, Illinois is a better job than Indiana. 

The blueprint for Illinois shouldn’t be trying to become the next Wisconsin, the second-most consistent Big Ten program since 1993. Before you become Wisconsin, you need to be at least Indiana, as we trump them in numerous categories. 

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    The reason why Indiana is currently enjoying a lot of success is due to out-of-state recruiting. The state of Indiana was home to only one blue-chip recruit last season, and any recruit that excels in Indiana high schools will be eyeing Notre Dame. 

    However, the Hoosiers have done an excellent job in the state of Florida, where Tom Allen used to coach high school football. Using his connections, Allen currently has 21 players from the state of Florida, with a bulk coming from Tampa, including quarterback Michael Penix Jr. 

    The Hoosiers have ranked higher in recruiting than Illinois in every year since 2017, and that’s without earning dominant talent from their home state. Granted, Lovie Smith wasn’t exactly known for his recruiting, and I do believe Bret Bielema will do better. But Indiana has taken a page out of Tom Osborne of Nebraska, Hayden Fry of Iowa, Mark Dantonio of Michigan State and every Michigan coach’s playbook: finding a recruiting pipeline outside of Illinois.  

    Osborne dominated the east coast and Texas. Hayden Fry, with extreme Texas ties because of his head coaching experience with SMU and North Texas, built the Hawkeyes from scratch with Lone Star State talent. Dantonio, who led the Spartans to the college football playoff and a Rose Bowl victory, recruited Ohio with great success, signing players such as Connor Cook and Le’Veon Bell. 

    Illinois, while there are pockets, isn’t spectacular for high school talent. It’s fantastic that Bielema wants to keep the best players in the state, but he needs to think outside the box and get assistants who have phenomenal connections in recruiting hotspots — i.e. Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Ohio. 

    Another factor in Indiana’s rise is the stability and commitment to a philosophy. People don’t realize this, but Indiana had one of the most prolific offenses under Kevin Wilson. Granted, Wilson couldn’t field a respectable defense until hiring Tom Allen as coordinator, but the Hoosiers averaged at least 30 points per game in three out of his last five years. The reason: He had the system and personnel that fit it well. 

    I know that in the Big Ten, it almost sounds treasonous to suggest to run a Big 12 style offense, which means having a strong passing game. But look at the stats. Ohio State’s rise to national stardom was because they moved away from Jim Tressel’s run-heavy attack. Minnesota quickly found success under PJ Fleck with Tanner Morgan destroying secondaries. Penn State took off when they moved on from west coast-style quarterback Christian Hackenberg, replaced him with Trace McSorely and hired Joe Moorhead to call the plays. It led to a Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl. 

    Illinois, you can’t out-Wisconsin the Badgers or out-Iowa the Hawkeyes. You need to be able to throw the ball through the air. The Hoosiers have enjoyed a lethal passing attack for almost a decade now with quarterbacks such as Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Michael Penix Jr. If you can’t have your quarterback keeping defenses honest, the running game will fail.

    Brandon Peters struggled mightily unless his team was able to run the game. Against Nebraska, he is fine. But against Iowa and Northwestern, Illinois couldn’t crack more than 14 points with him on the field. 

    Wilson used his experiences from Oklahoma, where he developed Heisman winner Sam Bradford and Landry Jones to develop a lethal attack Indiana still uses to this today. Outside of the Big Ten, Nick Saban even adopted the spread attack, and he’s enjoying the greatest run in college football history. Ed Orgeron hired Joe Brady to develop Joe Burrow and the spread attack, and they won the national championship. 

    Illinois’ current emphasis on trying to eat clock and learning to not lose a game before winning a game is outdated. For too long, Illinois hasn’t had a playmaking quarterback who oversees an air attack. Jeff George Jr., Brandon Peters and Art Sitkowski won’t cut it. No offense, but having a coordinator who has never clung himself to any specific philosophy won’t cut it. 

    Of course Rod Smith, who developed Pat White, Denard Robinson and Khalil Tate, didn’t find great success with Peters under center. He didn’t fit the offense. The offense ran best under Isaiah Williams, who sparked life into the offense against Rutgers, Iowa and Penn State. 

    This article isn’t about me wanting Bielema fired. I like Bielema. There’s a reason why Barry Alvarez selected 35-year-old Bielema to succeed him in Madison and not Paul Chryst, who was on the staff. But today’s college football is wildly different. When Bielema coached at Wisconsin, Ohio State’s quarterback took snaps from under center and ran a pro-style offense. In today’s college football, you need to be able to throw the ball. Ask that to LSU, Clemson and Alabama. On a scale more related to Illinois, ask Indiana that. 

    Indiana was a joke prior to Kevin Wilson, but now, they’re a consistent bowl contender, and the Hoosiers would have made the playoffs last season if they completed their comeback against Ohio State.

    This gives me hope about Illinois. But Illinois needs to fully embrace spread offense, and they need to develop strong ties out of state. The rebuild can take a while; it took Indiana a full recruiting cycle.

    No offense, Indiana, but if you can do it, Illinois can surely do with better facilities and in-state talent while being in the weaker division. But trying to out-tough Iowa and not revolutionizing the offense will lead to another coaching search sooner than Illini fans would like.


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