In year two of his regime, Illini football coach Bret Bielema truly earned the extension and raise that the University handed him last month. Bielema led the Illini to their first (traditionally) New Year’s Bowl Game in a decade and a half.
His team contended for a Big Ten West division title until the very last day. They finished at 8-5, a major improvement from 5-7 the year before. So while yes, there is a whole lot to get excited about, there are also plenty of things to be concerned about. This season inspired both pride and disappointment at the same time.
The bookies, back in the preseason, set the over/under on wins for this team at five. But that’s what makes gambling, like you would at Wolf Winner, so much fun! You just never know what is going to happen. Playing Wolf Winner is like wagering on college football, there is a very high variability of outcomes. So while yes, the Illini greatly exceeded the expectations of Vegas, who didn’t even think they’d be bowl eligible, there is still a ton of work to do.
“I think, if we’re disappointed in an eight-win season, we’ve made a step in the right direction,” Bielema said after the bowl game.
“By no means am I going to be settling for an eight-win season.”
Illinois was an 8-4 team in the regular season that was definitely closer to being 10-2 than they were to being 6-6. All of their losses were by one score. That’s the good news. The bad news is they lost four of their last five, with the one win coming over a Northwestern team that was simply awful, on all levels.
As we look ahead to the 2023 season (we’ll have the way too early preview tomorrow), we have to first reflect and analyze on where we’ve been, which we’ll do here, starting with more on the Reliaquest Bowl.
Illini football also remains sans a New Year’s (traditional) bowl win since 1990 (1989 season).
Bielema added the following during the postgame in Tampa:
“I did say to the guys last thing leaving the locker room, when you’re home, for the guys returning in the middle of January, think about where you truly want to be.
“You want to just be a good football team and talk about winning games, or do you want to sacrifice and get to a level of like championship expectations on a yearly basis?”
Illini Had a Golden Opportunity to Win, but Actually Deserved to Lose
Credit the Illini for taking a lead into the fourth quarter, on a SEC team in a January bowl game. They were tied with the Mississippi State Bulldogs, into the waning seconds, so the 19-10 final score doesn’t do justice to how the game actually went, but there are plenty of statistics that do accurately tell the story.
What the 35,797 (officially announced, the real number was probably closer to around 25,000) in attendance saw at Raymond James Stadium was a Mississippi State team that dominated Illinois in the trenches.
The Illini, with their ground-oriented offense, averaged just 1.2 yards per carry, and didn’t even get 40 yards rushing.
Miss St. outgained the Illini by over 100 yards and racked up seven sacks while allowing none. They earned this W, but at the same time, you kind of have to feel that if Chase Brown plays, Illinois wins this game.
Isaiah Williams had a career day, and if you had your offensive MVP actually in there, complementing a big day from your best wide receiver, then it probably would have been enough to make the difference.
Reflecting on the Other Four Disappointing Losses
Game 2 Indiana
This was a bad Hoosiers team, so there was really no excuse to drop this one. Although to be fair, the Illini got hosed on a call that saw one of their touchdowns come back, leading to their having to settle for a field goal. That four-point swing would have made all the difference, as the Illini lost by three.
Game 9 Michigan State
Coming into this game at 7-1 and ranked #14 in the country, perhaps the Illini football team was too busy reading their own press clippings before this one. The Illini seemed to buy their own hype as they placed sloppy and complacent. They out-gained Michigan State, by a lot, as they were simply a much better team, but it wasn’t enough.
Really no excuse for losing to a Spartans team this down.
Game 10 Purdue
Despite the previous week, everything was there for the taking in terms of a Big Ten West division title. Illini football had an opportunity that just may never come around again.
Not just because the BTW was even more down than usual, but with realignment coming, who knows how that will work out.
A big momentum swing, right before the first half ended, led to the Illini demise.
Game 11 Michigan
Credit the Illini for taking the Big Ten Champs, and a College Football Playoff team down to the wire. They gave the Wolverines the toughest game they had, up until they finally fell, for the first time, to TCU in the CFP. And again, some questionable calls went against Illinois.
Looking Back on the Eight Glorious Wins
Game 1 Wyoming, Game 4 Chattanooga, Game 8 Nebraska, Game 12 Northwestern
Common theme for this quartet of games- Illinois played a far inferior opponent and handled them exactly as they should. Says a lot about the state of the Illini football program, to have four blowout wins in the same season. Even more impressive- they achieved a couple of these wins even on days when they weren’t playing their best and lacking in some major facets.
Game 3 Virginia
First of the revenge tour wins and first real indication that things had turned around this season
Game 5 Wisconsin
Major message sent, as Bielema won a very emotional, personal homecoming game. Also, provided the final straw to Wisconsin firing Paul Chryst.
Game 6 Iowa
It took 14 years but Illini football FINALLY beat Iowa again, so this was huge and very exciting despite the ugly style and brutal final score. This was the Big Ten Westiest of all the Big Ten Westy games that have every occurred.
Game 7 Minnesota
No doubt one of the biggest highlights of this Illini football season, and one of the better moments in recent program memory. After a very thorough whopping of what had been considered the other major BTW title contender at the time, the Memorial Stadium sound guy played Hues Corporation “Rock the Boat.”
Legendary trolling. Wow!
2022 Illini Football Wrap Up
“I just think about Illinois, what I do know about Illinois is Illinois is in a better position now than they were when we got here,” Bielema said on Monday.
“There’s no question about that. For us to get to where we want to be, we need to continue to strive forward with our coaching, Xs and Os, offense, defense, and special teams, and we’ve got to continue to build and develop our roster.”
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also 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.”
He’s written for numerous publications, including the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. He regularly appears on NTD News and WGN News Now. Follow the website on Twitter and Instagram.