Illinois football aims to replicate 2019 magic in Homecoming game against Wisconsin

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The Daily Illini File Photo

Illini football players Devon Witherspoon, Kerby Joseph, and Oluwole Betiku Jr. celebrate after their homecoming win against Wisconsin Oct. 19, 2019. The Illini hope to replicate that magical win for the second time against the Badgers Oct. 9.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Oct. 19, 2019, seemed like just a normal Homecoming game day for Illini fans across the nation: One of the top teams in the conference, No. 6 Wisconsin, would come to Memorial Stadium, win by a handful of touchdowns, and fans would leave the building embarrassed and confused at the performance they just saw on the field.

The year prior, Illinois fell to Purdue, 46-7, in the Homecoming game, allowing over 600 yards of total offense and 46 unanswered points. It seemed inevitable that something of that scale would happen again with a conference powerhouse coming to town.

But, that didn’t happen. When the Illini trailed by 13 following a Jonathan Taylor 5-yard touchdown run, it seemed like the visiting Badgers would run away with the game. Yet, Illinois put up a fight, ultimately winning on a 39-yard James McCourt field goal as time expired.

As soon as the ball sailed through the uprights in front of the student section in the north end zone, the stands quickly emptied as fans rushed the field, celebrating arguably the most impressive victory of the Lovie Smith era and one of the most shocking wins of the college football season.

When Wisconsin heads to Champaign on Saturday for this year’s Homecoming game, the first one since 2019 with fans after last season was played behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things will be different. Not only are the Badgers not the same caliber team as the squad the Illini faced two seasons ago, but it will be the first time since leaving Wisconsin in 2012 that current Illinois head coach Bret Bielema will be facing off with his former team, which he coached for seven seasons.

“I made a lot of great relationships (in Madison), you know, I could go on and on,” Bielema said. “There are just so many different things I can’t put a price tag on. I told our guys unequivocally on Sunday, even Saturday after the game, just as much as I talk to them all the time about their pasts, … all of that is behind me. None of that applies to any moment in any preparation mode this week whatsoever.”

Bielema isn’t the only coach on his staff with ties to Wisconsin, as several coaches have either coached or played — and, on some occasions, both — under Bielema in Madison prior to joining his team in Champaign.

Several members of the defensive coaching staff — defensive backs coach Aaron Henry, defensive line coach Terrance Jamison, linebackers coach Andy Buh and associate head coach/outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane — have ties to this week’s opponent.

Henry played under Bielema at Wisconsin, earning All-Big Ten first-team defensive back honors, winning two Big Ten titles and making the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons while playing for the Badgers from 2007 to 2011.

Jamison also competed under Bielema, competing as a defensive lineman before injuries sidelined him and ended his playing career. He also has coached at Wisconsin, taking positions as a student assistant, graduate assistant and defensive quality control coach.

Though Buh didn’t play for the Badgers, he was the linebackers coach under Bielema in 2012, helping the Badgers secure the Big Ten Championship title in his lone season in Madison.

Like Buh, Kane never took the field for Wisconsin, though he found himself on the sidelines at Camp Randall from 2008 to 2010, serving as a graduate assistant and quality control coach during his three years in Madison.

On the offensive side of the ball, offensive line coach Bart Miller also coached under Bielema against the Illini’s upcoming opponents, serving as a graduate assistant in 2011 before being promoted to offensive line coach in 2012.

With lots of ties to the Badgers and with several members of the Illini’s 2019 team still competing in Champaign, Saturday’s matchup should bring lots of intrigue despite the records of both schools.

Despite his ties to the fellow Big Ten West program, Bielema emphasized that his approach to every game is the same, and this week will be no different.

“My preparation for any game is the exact same,” Bielema said. “I’m not gonna do anything more or less; I’m just not wired that way, and that’s the way I teach our players and our coaches to go about it.”

A staple of past Homecoming games, including the one in 2019, the gray ghost uniforms will not be worn on Saturday, Bielema announced Monday.

Illinois enters the matchup with a 2-4 record and is coming off a 24-14 win over Charlotte last week in Champaign, with running back Chase Brown rushing for a career-high 257 yards in his first game back from injury.

Wisconsin sits at 1-3 and comes to Memorial Stadium off a 38-17 loss at home to Michigan. Their record is somewhat deceiving, though, as they have played Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan, three teams ranked in the top 25.

Homecoming festivities are scheduled all week, while the game is scheduled to kick off at 2:30 p.m.

 

@JacksonJanes3

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