Column | Credibility of Bielema, Illinois football will skyrocket with win over Wisconsin

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Lanie Hibel

Coach Bret Bielema smiles as he talks to the news about the result of Oct. 2 football game against Charlotte. Columnist Carson Gourdie shares his thoughts on the outcome of this Saturday’s football game.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

The year is 2017. After two years of underperforming their preseason ranking, the Arkansas Razorbacks were sitting at 4-7. With seconds remaining, Missouri placekicker Tucker McCann nailed a 19-yard field goal to knock off Bret Bielema’s squad. 

Bielema was on the hot seat, and the Tigers’ victory made it official: He would be relieved of his duties. Before Bielema even left the field, he was informed that he would not return for the 2018 season. 

In 2012, Bielema was coming off of his third straight Big Ten title at Wisconsin. But that smashmouth success that led to the Arkansas job almost ended his career as a head coach. Bielema would experiment in the NFL as a position coach, but he always had his eye on college ball. 

When Michigan State was looking to replace Mark Dantonio, Bielema was interested. When Colorado was looking for their next coach to place Mel Tucker, Bielema was interested. 

Now, Bielema is back as the head man, and a victory over his former program, Wisconsin, will skyrocket his program’s image — as well as his own — in the eyes of the nation. 

A victory over the Badgers in 2019 was exciting for Illinois fans. It gave Lovie Smith a tad of credibility. But that win was incredibly fluky, as the Illini were aided by a goal-line stop, a Jonathan Taylor fumble and a Jack Coan interception in the fourth quarter. If that game was played 100 times, the Badgers win 95 of them. 

While the win did spark a bowl appearance, Lovie Smith was fired just over a year later. But a Bielema victory is different. 

The reason Bielema was hired was because of his Big Ten experience. He knows the Midwest, and he won a lot at Wisconsin with his stout defense, offensive linemen and a cradle of running backs. In the 2012 Big Ten title, his running back room featured three NFL players: Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon. 

Now he can beat his former program at its own game.

Look at the current makeup of Illinois. In the past three games, the defense has only allowed 15.7 points per game. The offense has found wild success with the run, totaling at least 200 rushing yards in each game. 

When Bielema took over the job, it appeared Isaiah Williams could likely be his quarterback. Instead, Bielema decided to stick with the pocket passer Brandon Peters, something he did at Wisconsin. 

We can argue about who should start at quarterback, but we know for sure it won’t be Williams. Bielema is principled in the sense that smashmouth offense is the way he wants to operate. Now, he gets to go against the program he led for seven seasons. 

When Bielema left Wisconsin, people said it was a mistake, and after the Arkansas job, they probably thought they were correct. But Bielema was given a second chance in the conference, and the results have been mixed. Being more aggressive in the fourth quarter would likely have the Illini sitting undefeated in conference play. 

The Bielema era in Champaign is a slow burn, not a sprint. Taking over a program that hasn’t made back-to-back bowls since 2011 will have its challenges. 

Bielema definitely wanted to start it off with a bang in Champaign. It’s no secret he thought returning over 20 seniors who could’ve left would give the Illini a great chance to secure six wins. Even with the disappointing conference losses, he has a chance to turn it around quickly.

The Wisconsin Badgers haven’t played well all season. Coming into the year ranked No. 12 in the preseason rankings and being the favorite to win the division, the Badger offense has crashed and burned, resulting in a 1-3 start. Granted, the teams the Badgers have fallen to — Penn State, Michigan and Notre Dame — are very good. But they’ve also only scored a combined 40 points against them.

I don’t care how bad the Badgers offense has performed when Jim Leonhard is still the defensive coordinator. Penn State managed only 16 points. Notre Dame scored 21 points off two pick-6s and a kickoff return for a touchdown. Michigan was held to under 400 total yards. 

Regardless of the poor start to the season, it’s still Wisconsin. The Badgers have been the cream of the crop of the West Division since its inception. While they haven’t won the conference since the Bielema era, Wisconsin can boast several division titles and two New Year’s Six bowl victories. 

Imagine the narrative if Illinois knocks off the Badgers, 13-7. Bielema beat his former program. He beat Paul Chryst, his former offensive coordinator when he was head coach. Illinois will be 2-2 in conference play and have a chance at securing a bowl. People said Bielema couldn’t replicate his style of play with less talented players than Wisconsin, but he would’ve done it with Lovie Smith players. 

I’m still mad about Purdue and Maryland, but a Wisconsin victory will wipe that all away. I don’t think Wisconsin is any good, but the image from that victory will resonate across the conference.

 

@GourdieReport

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