It should have been obvious that Illinois would be the most disappointing Big Ten team in 2023. The writing has always been on the wall for the Fighting Illini.

If there’s 1 program in the B1G that cannot be trusted to sustain success, it is Illinois. Always.

In 2007, Juice Williams led Illinois to an improbable Rose Bowl run. The next 2 seasons? Illinois went 5-7 and 3-9.


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In 2001, Kurt Kittner and the Illini burst out of nowhere for a Big Ten title and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. The next 2 seasons? 5-7 and 1-11.

It feels destined to be that way for this program in the 21st century. There’s no such thing as an upward trajectory. Just a supernova of success followed by a return to business as usual.

But it was easy to be fooled into thinking an 8-4 regular season in 2022 was just the beginning for Illinois. Bret Bielema is not Ron Turner or Ron Zook. He actually has a sustained track record of success coaching in the Big Ten.

But what if that isn’t the version of Bielema that Illinois purchased? What if this is the Arkansas version — an early splash of success that he can never build upon?

At the moment, the latter version looks quite likely.

A dramatic drop-off

A year ago, Illinois led the nation in scoring defense and ranked 2nd nationally in yards per play allowed. The Illini were 2nd in the country with 31 takeaways, including a nation-high 24 interceptions. A plus-14 turnover margin was good for 3rd in the nation.

Obviously, those levels were going to be difficult to keep up.

Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters left to become Purdue’s head coach. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon was the No. 5 pick in the NFL Draft. Fellow defensive backs Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown went in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, respectively.

Replacing 3 top-66 overall draft picks on the same side of the ball is a heck of a feat to pull off, especially at a program that isn’t replenishing with 4-star recruits ready to roll.

But it’s still been a jaw-dropping drop-off for the Illini.

Halfway through the season, Illinois is 90th nationally in scoring defense. The Illini allow 5.4 yards per play, which is 59th nationally.

But nothing is more surprising than the decline of a run defense that was still expected to be solid with the “Law Firm” of Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. anchoring a very good defensive line.

The regression of the pass defense was to be expected. But for the Illini to be gashed for 176 rushing yards per game — 110th nationally — is shocking.

Worse still is the turnover margin, which has plummeted to 117th in the country. Illinois has 8 takeaways and 13 giveaways this season. The Illini committed 17 turnovers all of last season.

The last 2 stats — rushing yards allowed and turnover margin — actually say more about Illinois’ sorry mess of an offense than they do the defense.

This is not sexy football

At Wisconsin and Arkansas, you knew what you’d get from a Bielema offense. A mauling from as many large dudes as could legally be placed on the line of scrimmage to pave the way for running backs to run wild.

Bielema described it as only he could.

Fast forward to Friday night’s game against Nebraska. The Illini marched 74 yards in 6 minutes to reach the Nebraska 1-yard line. A very Bielema drive.

Then, on a 4th-and-goal a foot away from the goal line, Illinois direct-snapped out of the shotgun to running back Reggie Love — the second time they did so inside the 3-yard line on the drive.

He was stuffed both times.

If offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.’s offensive scheme was actually explosive, maybe you take that tradeoff. That’s just the way offenses are run these days.

But Lunney’s offense is 81st in the country in yardage and 119th in scoring. Illinois is getting no bang for its buck. Might as well go back to maulball.

You know why the Illinois run defense is suddenly bad this year? They’re exhausted. Lunney’s tire fire of an offense can’t stay on the field.

The Illini are 124th nationally in time of possession at 26:47 per game. Last season, Illinois was 14th at 32:41 per game.

Those lost 6 minutes are placing a huge strain on the defense.

The offensive line — the 1 thing even Bielema’s worst Arkansas team could get right — stinks. They’ve allowed a B1G-high 24 sacks. Illinois allowed 28 sacks all of last season.

And then there’s quarterback Luke Altmyer, who has been a major downgrade from the precise game management of Tommy DeVito.

The Ole Miss transfer has a bigger arm than DeVito, but he primarily uses it to throw the ball to opponents. Altmyer’s 8 interceptions lead the Big Ten and are the 2nd-most in the FBS.

With the exception of Russell Wilson, Bielema’s QBs have been game managers. Altmyer is neither Wilson nor a game manager. And the results are speaking for themselves.

The fork in Bielema’s road

Bielema is a proven program sustainer. He took what Barry Alvarez built at Wisconsin and kept the engine humming. Maybe even elevated it to another level.

But he has yet to prove himself as a program builder. Bielema took over a losing Arkansas program in the bruising SEC West and made the Hogs competitive. He peaked with an 8-5 season in 2015 — the same as last year’s record at Illinois — and was gone 2 years later.

This year is already a wash. And that means the next 2 seasons — in a much more bruising B1G — are going to show us whether Bielema has learned from his Arkansas mistakes or is doomed to repeat them.

Around the B1G horn

Couldn’t watch every game? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

No. 2 Michigan 52, Minnesota 10

Stat of the game? With 2 touchdowns scored on interception returns, Michigan’s defense outscored Minnesota’s offense. And Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis threw more touchdowns to the Wolverines than the Gophers.

Another stat? Minnesota still hasn’t beaten Michigan at home since 1977. That’s 2 stadiums ago for the Gophers.

No. 4 Ohio State 37, Maryland 17

The Buckeyes moved up a spot thanks to this win and Texas’ loss to Oklahoma. But after seeing Notre Dame get spanked at Louisville, it’s fair to question whether the Buckeyes are  actually  the No. 3 team in the country.

We’ve yet to see Ohio State at its best — including this game, which was still 20-17 4 minutes into the fourth quarter.

Wisconsin 24, Rutgers 13

This is the closest the Scarlet Knights have ever finished against the Badgers, so tip of the hat for that feat, I guess.

Rutgers is a program that aspires to win in the same style that Wisconsin did for decades — and, frankly, still is. So it’s fitting that both teams finished with exactly 4.6 yards per play in a game where defense set the tone.

Northwestern 23, Howard 20

The Wildcats narrowly avoided losing to an FCS team for the 2nd straight season and in the process improved to 3-3 overall.

The Bison probably should have won this game, though. They outgained the Wildcats by 50 yards, but were undone by 2 scoreless trips inside the red zone.

Iowa 20, Purdue 14

For the first time in Kirk Ferentz’s 347 games coaching the Hawkeyes, Iowa did not complete a pass to a wide receiver. Deacon Hill, making his first career start at quarterback, completed only 6 of his 21 attempts.

Yet at no time did it feel like Iowa was going to lose this game.

Purdue averaged 2.8 yards per carry, quarterback Hudson Card was sacked 6 times, and the Boilermakers made only 2 trips inside the red zone.

Nebraska 20, Illinois 7 (Friday)

Nebraska’s early goal-line stand set the tone for the rest of the game. Illinois rushed for just 21 yards on 19 carries. That’s the worst performance on the ground for the Fighting Illini since gaining 14 yards on 26 attempts in the 2019 regular-season finale at Northwestern.

Matt Rhule picked up his first Big Ten win at Nebraska, and the 3-3 Cornhuskers have a fighting chance at their first bowl game since 2016.

Week 6 MVPs

1. WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State

Playing on a bum ankle, Harrison was still able to demonstrate why he’s the best in the country at his position. Simply put, Ohio State likely doesn’t beat Maryland without him in the lineup.

Harrison finished with 8 receptions for 163 yards and a touchdown. His most important catch was a 34-yard sideline grab on a Kyle McCord second-and-33 heave that changed the tone of the game early in the fourth quarter.

2. DB Josh Proctor, Ohio State

Proctor was Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ top weapon against the Terrapins.

The senior safety finished with 7 tackles including 1.5 TFL, and scored Ohio State’s only touchdown of the first half on a 24-yard interception return.

3. QB JJ McCarthy, Michigan

The Wolverines didn’t need a full game out of McCarthy, who made the most of his time on the field.

McCarthy finished 14-of-20 for 219 yards and a touchdown, while adding 17 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 4 carries.

4. RB Kaleb Johnson, Iowa

Johnson got the Hawkeyes on the scoreboard early with a 67-yard touchdown run on Iowa’s second possession of the game. He finished the game with 134 yards on 17 carries, which is a pretty respectable output given that Purdue’s defense was well aware of Iowa’s passing limitations.

Johnson had missed Iowa’s previous 3 games with an injury, making this a welcome return to the lineup.

5. DB Beau Brade, Maryland

Brade was the best player on the field for the Terrapins, helping put the wraps on Ohio State’s offense before the Buckeyes finally blew up for 17 points in the fourth quarter.

The safety was all over the field, recording 8 tackles (1 TFL) and 2 PBUs.

Play of the week

Maryland receiver Kaden Prather’s 1-handed touchdown grab — with his left hand! while clearly being interfered with! — stood out from the moment it happened early in the first quarter, and stood up as the Big Ten play of the week.

Blooper of the week

Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt has only completed 51.8% of his pass attempts this season, which rates 13th among B1G starters.

A photographer at Camp Randall Stadium learned this statistic the hard way.