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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Somewhere in Champaign County, Illinois football coach Bret Bielema watched his team play his alma mater Saturday afternoon.

We will hopefully get details about the experience later from the first-year leader, who had to miss Saturday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. Maybe during his Monday Zoom call.

Or not. He is very good for the media, friendly and interesting.

Except when he doesn’t want information out there.

And what Bielema did behind closed doors during No. 18 Iowa’s 33-23 victory against the Illini at Kinnick Stadium might be kept private.

But I can guess.

Bielema’s mood shortly after the start of Saturday’s game was probably giddy.

His team opened with a near-perfect 75-yard scoring drive, capped by Brandon Peters’ touchdown pass to a wide-open Luke Ford.

“That’s what we’re talking about,” he might have said to nobody, since, well, nobody can be around him.

Back at Kinnick, Illinois assistant George McDonald was acting head coach in Bielema’s absence. Was he thinking, ‘What would Coach B do?”

“A little bit,” McDonald said. “I think Coach did a great job all week having Zoom calls with our staff, laying out his vision and trying to play the game through us and giving us an opportunity to ask questions. The last thing he told us is, ‘You’ve got to do what you think is right.’ He’s trained us well.”

Fast startIt seemed to work. Especially early in the game.

Later in the first quarter, Bielema’s defense went to work, holding Iowa on third down and forcing a punt. It didn’t go well for the Hawkeyes. The long snap bounced to star punter Tory Taylor and the play got smothered, resulting in a 29-yard Iowa loss.

llinois took advantage, with James McCourt nailing a 46-yard field goal to give Illinois a 10-0 lead.

At his secret lair, I imagine Bielema standing up for special teams, hollering with a couple fist pumps to boot.

“Wooo-hooo,” he might have screamed. As far as you know.

The fast start was a goal for Illinois, which was trying to win at Iowa for the first time since 1999.

“That was one of the things we’ve been trying to work on since the bye, get going and getting some points early,” McDonald said.

The early lead would have put a smile on Bielema’s face, linebacker Tarique Barnes said.

“For sure. Of course. Especially because he’s not here,” Barnes said. “I’m pretty sure he felt excited to know his team came out in the jump and did what it had to do.”

Rough finishIf only Bielema could have hit the pause button right then at 10-0.

No such luck. The Hawkeyes outscored the visitors 33-13 the rest of the way, clinching Illinois’ 11th consecutive losing season. Try as they might, the Illini weren’t able to win one for their absent coach.

“Coach B brings a different energy,” running back Chase Brown said. “You know his presence for sure.”

Did the Illini miss him?

“You definitely miss him on the sideline,” Brown said. “You want your head coach going into every single game. But this week, that wasn’t what it was. We had to adapt and accept what the situation was.”

During the game, the players tried not to dwell on Bielema. He wouldn’t have wanted that. They are supposed to do their job, no matter who is in charge.

“My main focus was to go out there and make plays when my name was called,” wide receiver Isaiah Williams said.

“He put a plan in place,” Barnes said.

McDonald figured to hear from Bielema immediately after the game.

“He’s probably calling my phone right now,” McDonald said. “Coach is awesome. I can’t wait to talk to him.

“I’m disappointed, because I wanted to give him the game ball (after a win). I love this place. I love Coach B. There are a lot of people in there who are hurting because we wanted to get this done and there were chances for us to get it done and we didn’t.”

Bielema is expected to be back with the team next week, but the timetable for his return hasn’t been announced.

Fast is McDonald’s hope.

“We’ll probably give him a big hug and I’ll give him back his head coach whistle and say, ‘You can have it.’ McDonald said. “Coach is so special. He’s so dynamic. As soon as we can get him back, we’re going to follow his lead.”

Bielema has one more game this season with his first Illinois team. And it’s a doozy, at home on Senior Day against Northwestern. The Wildcats have given the Illini fits during Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure.

Much like the fits Bielema had to likely experience watching Saturday’s game back home alone in Champaign County.

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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