Illinois breakout provides template for Big Ten success ahead of Nebraska showdown

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Here are Nebraska’s football starters against No. 17 Illinois.



Amid his worst season as Big Ten coach, Bret Bielema was outspoken.

It was mid-October 2021 and the freshman skipper from Illinois didn’t see much evidence of immediate optimism. His team had just been shut out 24-0 by Wisconsin, the school where he won games by nearly 74% from 2006 to 2012. The former defensive lineman scanned his staff for viable options on the line of scrimmage. He didn’t see any.

He then said, in a comment that ruffled feathers locally, that the roster needed an overhaul for the Illini to be in a position to win championships. Especially on the offensive line.

“I don’t believe we have a player in both depths that they’ve brought here in the last three years that really does anything for us in the play department,” Bielema said. “That’s a major concern.”

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Just a year later, Illinois traded in the angst for the unfamiliar thrill of meaningful football on Halloween weekend. He brings a No. 17 ranking and the lone possession of the Western Division lead to Nebraska on Saturday for a 2:30 kickoff. His defense is a statistical juggernaut. The offense has a black and blue identity behind the league’s top rusher.

The Huskers are tasked with defeating the Illini – and ending a 19-game, six-year drought against Top 25 competition – but would also do well to take notes on what, in the name of Red Grange, has transformed a perpetual Western footnote to a Big Ten success story in Bielema’s sophomore year.

“They’ve got a really good regimen, they’re well trained and they stick to their guns,” NU interim coach Mickey Joseph said.

Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson — who witnessed the Huskers lose two of three to under-.500 Illinois teams in his career — notices the difference on film. It’s Wisconsin in orange and blue uniforms, he said, with a ball-control approach that wears down opposing defenses and protects their own.

“They want to be physical up front, to direct the ball,” Nelson said. “Their offense and their quarterback are doing a great job of managing the game. Obviously, their defense is really good. They don’t want to compromise that and these guys are playing well.

How did Illinois (6-1, 3-1) get there?

It starts with Bielema, the Illinois native coach and three-time Wisconsin Big Ten champion who died at Arkansas (29-34) and spent three years in the NFL before being hired in December 2020. Its staff is a mixture of veterans. , newcomers and a remnant of the previous team. Some had a history with Bielema. All have connections in the state or in the Big Ten footprint. Second-year defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, 36, is on the hot boards nationally.

The 52-year-old said the best trait he looks for in assistants is consistency. It can protect against a staff member’s weakness while emphasizing strengths. The same philosophy is true for gamers.

“We maximize consistency in the things we do well,” Bielema said. “We constantly try to stay away from things that we don’t do well. … What we do, we do very, very well. We do it very quickly.

Bielema fired his handpicked offensive coordinator, Tony Petersen, last offseason after the Illini finished 116th in offensive scoring (20.2 points per game). His replacement, Barry Lunney, bumped that ranking up to 85th (26) while relying on a ground and pound attack.

But Bielema, who likes the saying that people don’t bet on jockeys in horse racing, needed thoroughbreds.

That light offensive line over depth he was talking about a year ago?

He lost two starters as a sixth-round NFL draft pick. Illinois rebuilt it, adding a pair of lightly drafted three-star guards — Isaiah Adams and Zy Crisler — as inside starters. He developed senior Alex Pihlstrom, a converted tight end, at center. Veteran right tackle Alex Palczewski returned while left tackle Julian Pearl and sixth man Jordyn Slaughter broke under new conservatorship.

“I could see the trend that way,” Bielema said. “I’ve seen this rodeo before. I just needed to see it first hand.

Illinois also worked with what it had at D-line. His three regular starters – Jer’Zhan Newton, Calvin Avery and Keith Randolph – returned from last year as the run defense toughened up from 3.82 yards per carry (44th) to 2.77 (fourth). It was from 5.96 (125th) in 2018.

“It doesn’t surprise anyone in the building,” Walters said. “We put out these kinds of awards, accolades, plays. Now, having hard evidence is definitely beneficial on the recruiting track.

The Transfer Portal served as a side dish to the development main course. Illinois has added nearly 10 transfers in the two recruiting cycles under Bielema. He hit starting linebacker Calvin Hart and co-starting kicker Fabrizio Pinton the first time. He added quarterback Tommy DeVito (Syracuse) last winter.

“I’ve known Bret for a long time,” said offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who has often crossed paths with his peers in football and recruiting circles. “He has a plan and it’s sort of been realized for him.”

Illinois has already beaten Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota – the teams against which Nebraska has lost a total of 18 consecutive games – in the same season for the first time since 1983. A victory in Lincoln against a Husker team eager to re-enter the division race brings her one step closer to her first Big Ten title match.

Bielema said his team accepted that. Coaches and players dedicate part of each Sunday to watching the rest of the college football world. Their rise is an example of how quickly things can turn, even for a program that has had six bowl games this century.

“We started doing it this year before we even really became someone to talk about,” Bielema said. “I wanted them to understand what was going to happen.”

At least for Saturday, Nebraska also knows what’s coming.

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