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CHAMPAIGN — He’s back. Or at least will be in time for Saturday’s Illinois-Northwestern football game.

First-year coach Bret Bielema met with the media Monday afternoon via Zoom. Remember, Bielema is recovering from COVID-19. He feels fine.

“Other than being in this same (darn) room all the time,” Bielema said.

Bielema expects to be cleared to return to his team by Friday. He hopes sooner.

“I wish it could be today. It won’t be,” he said. “I’m just following all the protocols that have been in place. I want to make sure I’m good, too. I have questions every day.”

While Bielema remains in isolation, the Illini (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten) continue to prepare for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff against the Wildcats (3-8, 1-7). The game plan is being installed.

“When I get in the building, the hay’s going to be in the barn already,” Bielema said. “We don’t have school this week, so we adjusted our practices to a little bit later in the day.”

The team will have Thanksgiving dinner together.

“We have 115 on our roster and 90 of them have RSVP’d and will eat dinner with us Thursday afternoon in the stadium,” Bielema said.

As much as he wants to see his team again, Bielema is looking forward even more to being with his family. Because of his illness, Bielema has been away from wife Jen and their two young daughters, Briella and Brexli.

“I haven’t seen my girls for a long time,” Bielema said while getting choked up.

Illinois and Northwestern will play for the Land of Lincoln Trophy on Saturday in what will also be Senior Day for a bunch of guys who could have left after the 2020 season.

“A really special week this week,” Bielema said.

Last look back

Bielema watched the Illini’s 33-23 loss at Iowa this past Saturday from a remote location in Champaign-Urbana.

“I’m very proud of our coaches, our players, not just the way they showed up on Saturday, but the way they handled the week,” Bielema said. “I wasn’t surprised, to be honest.”

Of course, he would have liked a different result, with Iowa extending its win streak against Illinois to eight games.

Bielema met with the team Sunday night on Zoom. What did he say?

“’I love it. You played hard. You were competitive. You did a lot of really good things. The film shows that,’” Bielema recalled. ‘”But we aren’t doing enough good things in all three phases to win. We’re not into participation ribbons. We’re into winning games.’”

Some frustrating moments ensued for Bielema during the game. Like when play got chippy between the two teams, resulting in minor tussles.

“It was obvious the refs couldn’t handle the moment and allowed it to get to that level,” Bielema said. “It is what it is. We’ll move forward.”

The day gave Bielema a chance to watch the game with replays available.

“I’m going nuts,” Bielema said. “That part is really real.

“That brings much more detail to the game that I’ve never really thought about. That experience was unique.”

Bielema didn’t talk to many people during his private watch party.

“It went faster than I thought it would,” Bielema said.

Bielema warned the team beforehand about the threat of Iowa returner Charlie Jones.

“I said, ‘If we’re playing well on defense and doing what we’re supposed to do on offense, they’re going to turn to this phase of their game to try and change the game,’” Bielema said.

Sure enough, Jones returned a kickoff 100 yards to cut the Illinois lead to 10-7.

“That was a game-changing moment,” Bielema said.

Pat on the backAfter recording 51/2 tackles for loss against Iowa, Illini linebacker Isaiah Gay was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.

“To see the improvement he’s made this year as a player is probably one of the single greatest in-season improvements I’ve seen,” Bielema said. “That’s all a credit to him, Coach (Kevin) Kane and the defensive coaches that work with him.

“He took the challenge.”

How did Gay get better?

“There’s a lot of times I had some one-on-one conversations that were fun and some weren’t very fun,” Bielema said. “I’m a big believer in praising loudly and criticize softly. I definitely pointed his play out both positively and negatively at times in the team meeting environment. Fortunately for us in the last six weeks, it’s been a lot of positives.”

Bielema praised Gay’s football IQ, athleticism and awareness.

“He’s made a conscientious effort to play a certain way,” Bielema said, “and he’s going to get rewarded for that in a big way.”

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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