Early on, Bret Bielema Seems Exactly What Illini Football Needs

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First year Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema said it best, heading into his first game in the new gig: “It’s easy to get excited about something you’ve never seen. I hope there is equal excitement after we get done playing.”

He absolutely nailed it, winning his debut 30-22 over the Nebraska Cornhuskers and another head coach under the microscope, Scott Frost. In the very first college football game of the 2021 season, and the earliest ever Big Ten game (calendar date wise), Illinois made it back to back wins over Nebraska for the first time since literally the Red Grange era.

It was also NU’s first loss ever, in 15 games, in the month of August. And it was a back-up QB, Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski, who led the Illini to the big W.

“He’s what a quarterback walks like, talks like, sounds like,” Bielema said of Sitkowski.

“I didn’t have any doubts about how he was going to handle the moment…When you see players rally around their quarterback I think you got something.”

Starting quarterback Brandon Peters, who began his college career in 2015, left the game early with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder (that was all Bielema said about his BP’s status in postgame).

Sitkowksi, who came in to this game with extremely unimpressive career numbers (including an unsightly 8-20 TD-INT ratio), managed the game perfectly and produced some elite single game statistics.

He was 12-15 passing (80% completion) for 125 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Asked about how and why Sitkowski got it done today, after being very poor at Rutgers, Bielema rejected the narrative that Sitkowski struggled.

Which is just the kind of thing that you have to say about your own players, when you’re a head coach, regardless of reality.

Bielema also refused to comment on what his quarterback’s Rutgers career was like, as he did not coach him there.

“I only saw the good things,” Bielema responded.

“I’ve never seen Art struggle. You never really know what goes on when you’re not there. I took on a quarterback named Russell Wilson who supposedly had some struggles and that worked out well- so you only go with what you know.”

Wilson set the NCAA passer efficiency record in 2011 at Wisconsin before going no to become a NFL superstar with the Seattle Seahawks.

“We don’t worry about what has happened before,” Bielema added. “I think he’s re-invigorated by his opportunity here.”

Whatever it was that went wrong in New Jersey, Bielema and his offensive coordinator, Tony Peterson seem to have got it all figured out here. (At least for one game).

It is of course VERY early, but Bielema brings an attitude, some pizzazz, a swagger that has certainly been missing. He has acumen for this (winning Big Ten football games) and he is well aware of it.

“I’m definitely cocky, I get it all the time,” the first year Illini coach said at preseason media days.

“12-1 my first year (with Wisconsin) I thought I was Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick all in one. I thought I knew it all, and when things were pointed out to me I didn’t agree with, rather than understand the situation, I tried to fight the situation- in that respect I’ve grown.”

While Bielema has certainly matured and developed, he still maintains an edge as he then added:

“But our players will tell you I’m very feisty.”

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports Illustrated and the  Chicago Tribune.

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