CHAMPAIGN — Yes, Bret Bielema wants one more game. The way his Illinois football team played Saturday against Northwestern, it’s hard to blame him.
The Illini beat their rivals 47-14 to bring the Land of Lincoln Trophy back to Memorial Stadium.
Now, he waits to see if there will be a bowl at the end of Year 1.
The Illini (5-7) are planning for one — even if scant hope remains to have Illinois fill one of 82 bowl slots. Six wins are needed for bowl eligibility, and by Saturday night, 82 teams had reached six wins. But, crazier things have happened. It is college football, after all.
“By NCAA rule, because we haven’t been told we can’t, we actually get to practice (next) week,” Bielema said. “I’d love to play a bowl game for a variety of different reasons. My wife wants to go a bowl. I want to go to a bowl. The chance to get to practice would be awesome.”
Bielema wasn’t thinking about a bowl before his team got its fifth win.
“I’ll probably lock into that a little bit more,”Bielema said. “But I’m a plane (Sunday) to go recruit and I don’t back until next Friday, so it will be kind of by remote.”
With the bowl decision the last business for his first season, Bielema will soon be able to look ahead.
Year 2 of the Bielema era doesn’t actually kick off until next Aug. 27, when Wyoming visits Memorial Stadium.
Many items need to be at the top of the coach’s to-do list between now and then.
Here are five that leap to mind:
1. Find the next quarterback.We know it won’t be Brandon Peters, with the 24-year-old finally out of eligibility after three years in C-U. The former Michigan quarterback held down the fort this season, finishing with a winning performance on Senior Day.
It could be Art Sitkowski, who is expected to be fully recovered from a broken arm and shoulder surgery long before training camp opens. The one-time Rutgers hotshot is a viable option.
Incoming freshman Donovan Leary wants to get on the field early. Over the years, several future stars jumped in and played right away ... with limited success. Kurt Kittner and Juice Williams had rough rookie seasons before becoming two of the best in program history. Not redshirting worked out fine for them.
Nathan Scheelhaase could be the role model for Leary. He sat his freshman year, earned the starting job his second and finished as the school’s No. 3 career passer.
Sitkowski or Leary might be the answer.
More likely, the job will go to a guy who is currently playing at another school. In the next few weeks, players who are unhappy with their current situation will look around ... and notice the glaring opening at Illinois.
Bielema and his staff need to carefully evaluate the contenders and select the right guy. Not just a talented player, but one who fits the style and temperament of the team. Preferably someone who can join the squad in the spring and begin to lead right away.
Bielema has seen this done before with great success, watching Russell Wilson at Wisconsin after the quarterback left North Carolina State.
2. Finish the job.Illinois currently 17 commits in the 2022 recruiting class that will likely grow to 25. It won’t be the highest-rated group in Illinois history.
According to 247 Sports, the class is 45th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten. It is short of Ron Zook’s 2007 class, but better than the classes gathered by Lovie Smith.
The last eight spots must be filled with guys who can help both immediately and long term. It will help if there are more from Illinois, which Bielema and his staff have made a priority.
3. Scour the portal.Illinois needs improvement and reinforcements at multiple positions. Bielema realizes the turnaround he wants at Illinois can be accomplished sooner with the help of proven college talent. Sometimes a fresh start is just what a guy needs to realize his potential.
And don’t expect the transfers to come only from powerhouse programs. Good football is being played at all levels. If the offensive tackle at Brown is ready for the Big Ten, you give him a shot. Staff evaluations are a critical component of fishing in the transfer portal.
4. Take a look, fast.Bielema has been very positive about the work done by his coaching staff this season. If he wants everyone to stay for 2022, he should make that clear and shout it from the roof tops. But if he thinks he needs some alterations, it should be done in a hurry.
The sooner the 2022 group is together, the better. Both for recruiting and for the progress of the returning players.
5. Press some flesh.Winning over the fan base starts, of course, with winning. Saturday’s blowout victory had to help. But 10 consecutive losing seasons makes it easy for your supporters to justify staying away.
A year away because of COVID-19 also cut into the personal connections between the fans and the program.
Once recruiting is done and there is nothing more pressing to do on the football front, I would send Bielema and his coaches on good-will trips across the state.
Might have to wait until the spring, when it’s warmer and the events can be held more safely outdoors.
Bielema has good stories to tell about himself and his team. Part of the job at Illinois includes luring people back to Memorial Stadium. The announced crowd Saturday of 27,624 doesn’t cut it. Especially if Bielema wants to build a consistent winner. The fan base is part of the solution.
Full houses and fired-up crowds mean a ton both to the current team and recruits considering joining Bielema in C-U. Illinois suffers from an enthusiasm deficit, both in the conference and beyond.
“I played at the University of Iowa, and I saw that stadium last week when I was sitting in COVID protocol and I saw what that fan base was like,” Bielema said Saturday. “I’ve coached in this league at another school (Wisconsin) that had a sold-out place every game. I know it’s Josh (Whitman) and I’s goal to fill that baby up, to get this stadium so people come here every Saturday and that we can represent them.
“I knew it was important for us at the end of the year to go out on a high note to show people what we can possibly do in the future.”