The B1G 10: Illinois' unlikely, dramatic rise is a story worth rooting for
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G Story
This was it for all of them. The last turn in the road.
The last chance.
Want to root for someone in the November games to remember? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Illinois.
Two years removed from the lower rung of Power 5 schools, from the disastrous Lovie Smith experiment and more than a decade of futility, they’ll stare at the television Tuesday night to see where the Playoff committee has them ranked.
For the love of all things Chief Illiniwek, ranked.
“It’s great to be part of,” 2nd-year Illini coach Bret Bielema said, “but by no means is it the end.”
The funny thing is, they all could see the end from here not so long ago. Now through some cosmic convergence — or just plain luck — they’ve forged together for this improbable run.
The coach, the players and their now or never moment that has transformed a team of misfits into a magical and potential record-setting run.
Welcome, everyone, to Last Chance U.
Bielema bombed out at Arkansas, and was floating around the NFL as an assistant coach before last year taking the Illinois job — which was high in the running for the worst Power 5 job.
Quarterback Tommy DeVito lost his job at Syracuse to Mississippi State transfer Garrett Schrader, transferred to Illinois and is playing near-perfect ball.
Chase Brown arrived at Illinois before Bielema, but did so only after the previous Illinois staff ignored him out of high school and took his twin brother (and starting safety) Sydney Brown instead. Chase went to Western Michigan, transferred to Illinois in 2019 and is playing at an All-American level in his 5th season.
Tight end Michael Marchese had been moved all over both sides of the ball in his Illinois career, from safety to linebacker to tight end — and this season caught the first touchdown passes of his career. Hell, Bielema had to convince Marchese to stay for a 6th season instead of getting a job.
Safety Kendall Smith is in his 6th year, too, and has moved from wideout to cornerback to safety. He has 4 interceptions and is a critical piece to the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense — and like many on the team, is a microcosm of how Bielema turned this thing around so quickly.
Instead of barreling into the job and knocking everything sideways and running off those who didn’t fit, Bielema eased into the fractured program, changed player positions — and changed their careers. Imagine what that move, rare for any new coach to make, did for locker room chemistry.
Illinois has a 29-year-old punter (Hugh Robertson) who used to be a cop in Australia, and a 6th-year offensive tackle (Alex Palczewski) who has the most career starts in the history of the Big Ten (60).
Of all people, Palczewski has seen and lived the worst and has earned this Last Chance.
He was around for 10 consecutive losses in 2017, including a 24-point loss to USF (the first of 2 straight to the Bulls).
He was there for 4-8 in 2018, and a glimmer of hope with something called the Redbox Bowl in 2019, and the implosion of the COVID season in 2020 that got Smith finally, mercifully, fired.
He was there last season, when the Illini lost 5 of their first 7 under Bielema, and it looked and felt shaky. Then they won the 9 OT game at Penn State — and won 3 of their last 5 to set up this crazy concoction of a run.
He is, like so many others on this roster, an inspiring example of what happens when the perfect storm develops — and everyone has something to prove at Last Chance U.
2. Returning home
When Bielama flamed out at Arkansas, when the desire to bring what he built at Wisconsin to the SEC never materialized, he holed up in the NFL and waited for the right job.
He’s not an NFL guy; he enjoyed his time there, but college football and teaching young men is his passion. So he bounced around a few jobs with a couple of teams until the job in his home state opened.
It opened because Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman — a former Illinois tight end — finally fired Smith, his mentor and coach with the Tampa Bay Bucs. That out of the box hire, though, had Whitman staring at Last Chance, too.
Rarely do major college athletic directors survive 2 bad football coaching hires. Whitman couldn’t make another mistake, and he had a coach who knew how to win in the Big Ten interested in returning to his home state.
Sports Betting in Big Ten Country
Bielema grew up in Prophetstown, Illinois, a tiny town about 2 hours west of Chicago (population: 2,080). He was comfortable in the Big Ten and Illinois was home, and frankly, how cool would it be to bring Illinois its first West Division title and beat his former school (Wisconsin) in the process?
After losing 24-0 to the Badgers in 2021, Illinois humiliated Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium last month. The Illini’s suffocating defense held the Badgers to 2 yards rushing.
A day later, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst was fired with 67 career wins at Wisconsin. Another win would’ve tied him with Bielema for No. 2 on the Wisconsin career wins list behind Barry Alvarez.
Bielema beat his former team and kept his place in line.
Minutes after the game, Whitman gave Bielema a game ball and the perfect storm started gaining momentum.
“It’s not a fluke,” Chase Brown said after the game.
It still isn’t.
3. Last Chance, The Epilogue
They’ve won 7 games, and have already qualified for a bowl game.
That has been the bar at Illinois for years: Just get to the postseason. Bielema and this Last Chance group have quickly changed that narrative.
The Illini will be favored in 3 of their final 4 regular-season games (not at Michigan), and could finish the regular season with 10 wins.
The last time Illinois won 7 games was 2011, and the last time it won more than that was the 2007 Rose Bowl team that won 9. That team was the most talented at Illinois in decades, a collection of big-time recruits that coach Ron Zook landed and developed, including the star trifecta at quarterback (Juice Williams) tailback (Rashard Mendenhall) and wideout (Arrelious Benn).
This team is Last Chance U, a collection of rag tags who were told they weren’t good enough to play Power 5 football, or weren’t good enough to keep their jobs, or didn’t have what it took to win big games.
Now they’re 3 wins from tying the school record for single-season wins (10), and could bring the program its first West Division title and spot in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Last Chance never looked so good.
4. Money time
It happened again this season, and it’s an ominous trend for future Ohio State opponents.
Quarterback CJ Stroud played his best ball last week vs. Penn State — in the 4th quarter.
Stroud completed 6-of-8 passes of 128 yards and 1 TD against Penn State in the 4th quarter, as Ohio State pulled away from an uneasy 16-14 lead and scored 28 points in the quarter to win 44-31.
Stroud has played in 5 4th quarters this season and has completed 17-of-23 passes for 326 yards and 4 TDs, with 0 INTs. His 4th-quarter passer rating of 250.36 is more than 50 points higher than his overall rating of 200.16 — which leads the FBS by 10 points.
In the 4th quarter this season, 13 of Stroud’s 17 completions have gone for first downs, 7 completions were for 15-plus yards, and 3 were for 25-plus yards.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread, brought to you by our good friends at FanDuel:
- Ohio State (-37.5) at Northwestern
- Iowa at Purdue (-4.5)
- Minnesota at Nebraska (+15.5)
- Maryland (+5.5) at Wisconsin
- Michigan State at Illinois (-16.5)
Last week: 2-3.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Michigan RB Blake Corum (5-8, 210).
“He has gotten bigger, and he’s proving he can run between the tackles and push (the pile) some. You’re talking about a guy who, at the end of last year, I would’ve told you he’s a late-round guy at best. But he can run, got a little wiggle, and he’s really strong and sturdy.
“He’s getting an opportunity to show what he can be (at the next level), a lot like Hassan Haskins did last year. (Haskins) had a big year, then got picked in the middle rounds, and I would guess that’s probably where Corum will be picked. The difference between the two is Corum can run. He has that burst.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: The November prediction.
1. Michigan: 1 of 3 unbeaten teams in the nation (Tennessee) heading into the Nov. 26 game at Ohio State.
2. Ohio State: The defense that looked shaky against Penn State will get right over the next 3 gimme putts (Northwestern, Indiana, Maryland).
3. Illinois: 10 wins and West Division champions.
4. Penn State: Coach James Franklin finally makes the move to freshman QB Drew Allar, setting up the 2023 season.
5. Purdue: A season of uneven play from the offense costs Purdue a West Division championship.
6. Maryland: A brutal November schedule eliminates any hope of reaching 9 wins, the most by a Maryland team since 2010.
7. Minnesota: Gophers win 8 games; PJ Fleck hits the transfer portal and lands a starting quarterback.
8. Wisconsin: Win out and Jim Leonhard goes 6-1 as interim coach — and the job title becomes permanent.
9. Iowa: A 4-game losing streak to finish the season, and a losing record for the first time since 2012.
10. Nebraska: Losing streak hits 5 games, and then a win over Iowa for the first time since 2014.
11. Michigan State: A disjointed season gets worse (at Illinois) before it gets better (Rutgers, Indiana at home) — but eventually finishes without bowl eligibility.
12. Rutgers: After another non-bowl season, and coach Greg Schiano finds a quarterback from the transfer portal to improve a putrid pass game (16 TDs, 20 INTs, 54 percent completions in 2021-22).
13. Indiana: If the Hoosiers can’t win at Michigan State on Nov. 19, the seasons ends with 8 straight losses — and a 1-16 B1G record since the magical 2020 season.
14. Northwestern: The worst part of losing 11 straight games to finish the season? Nebraska gifted the Wildcats their only win.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: There has been very little news about the Nebraska coaching search. Should I be concerned? — Trey Greene, Omaha, Neb.
Just the opposite. From what I’ve learned of Nebraska AD Trev Alberts’ deliberate and detailed search, he already has zeroed in on a small list of candidates — and the hire will be quick after the season-ender against Iowa.
Alberts is playing this smartly, giving Mickey Joseph and the current staff the ability — without distraction — to coach the current roster and give them every chance to win games. Alberts has been around college athletics for decades. He played college football at the highest level and knows the current team deserves that respect.
He also knows what he wants, and has known since he agreed to the awkward 1-year win-or-walk agreement with former coach Scott Frost. He knew if it blew up with Frost, he’d make the most important hire — considering the explosion of NIL and player movement — in the history of Nebraska football.
He had an idea of where he would go prior to this season, just in case it didn’t work with Frost. He wasn’t blindsided by Frost’s early exit.
11.5. Remember when the big question at Michigan was if this defense could replace stud edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo and not sustain too much regression?
Here’s your regression: Michigan is giving up 11.5 points per game, a significant improvement from last season (17.4 ppg.). The Wolverines are actually averaging more sacks per game (3.25) this season than last year (2.43) And that’s just the beginning.
Yards per game
- 2021: 330.9.
- 2022: 250.3.
- 2021: 34.56.
- 2022: 29.91.
Tackles for loss
- 2011: 5.07 per game
- 2022: 6.25
10. Quote to note
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker: “We’re choosing to move forward and work every day to get better in everything that we’re doing. There’s actually no other choice to be made with how we proceed.”