John Wright sees shades of the teams that made him fall in love with Illinois football when he watches this year's Illini.
CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema called the start of Saturday’s game “a perfect” storm.
Big plays from the Nebraska offense. And an Illinois offense that couldn’t get out of its own way after a successful opening drive.
In previous years? That could have become a nightmare scenario for the Illini — especially on the road.
This season? A few second-half adjustments, coupled with an overload of belief and confidence, kept No. 17 Illinois on its step-by-step march toward a level of success the program has so infrequently achieved.
The next step in that process was Saturday’s 26-9 victory against Nebraska in front of a sellout crowd of 86,691 fans that couldn’t get out of Memorial Stadium fast enough. Except for a small contingent of Illinois fans. They stuck around, cheering on the team with the players heading to the locker room as the sun was starting to set on Saturday evening.
“We persevered and showed the faith,” Bielema said. “It shows their confidence. A lot of times when you hit some bumps in the road on the road, guys flinch and get intimidated or start doing things out of character. We stuck to our guns and stayed with what we did.”
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The confidence to push aside those early stumbles is rooted in the plan Bielema put in place for this team in January. The Illinois players have bought fully in to Bielema’s approach. They’re literally trusting the process.
“We don’t look forward,” Illinois outside linebacker Seth Coleman said. “Everyone wants us to look forward, but we take it one game at a time. It is tough, but Coach B. just has us trained to where we look at one task at a time and just do our job that day.”
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That top-down mindset has filtered through the entire team. Ask an Illinois player about where the faith and confidence this team has in itself originates, and their second-year coach is the answer.
“The biggest thing is just trusting our technique, trusting our coaching and trusting our ability,” Illinois offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said. “Our best is good enough when we do our jobs every single play. That’s something that started off slow (Saturday), but we were able to find it on the back half of the first half and the rest of the game. We have unbelievable coaches who are putting us in the best possible positions. It’s trusting all that.”
Palczewski made his 60th career start Saturday at Nebraska. He already had Illinois’ record. Now, no player in Big Ten history has ever started more games than the sixth-year offensive lineman.
Year six has brought the most success. Illinois is 7-1 to start a season for the first time since 2001. Just three other Illini teams — the 1951, 1983 and 1989 versions — had that kind of start. This year’s success is fully the result of at least a 10-month build.
“That’s our whole identity,” Palczewski said. “We always say we’re a physical football team. That’s not just something you say on Monday or Tuesday of game week. You go back to January through mat drills and spring ball, and it’s something you live for months and months. It’s not something you just switch on and off.”
Illinois might have pushed fast forward in turning what was a solid defense in 2021 into one of the best in the country in 2022, but the foundation was at least laid last season. The improvement offensively is more a light-speed jump.
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Heisman Trophy contending running back Chase Brown — who padded his stats with 149 rushing yards on 32 carries and one touchdown to go with three receptions for 13 yards and one touchdown — saw something different, something better, in the Illinois offense when quarterback Tommy DeVito arrived from Syracuse.
This only only developed further through spring ball, extra work in the summer and fall camp.
What the Illinois offense has become — what Illinois has become as a program — is all DeVito knows. A turnaround that started in winter workouts set the bar for what he thought the Illini could achieve.
“We saw the potential we had and the standard we were holding each other to,” DeVito said after he completed 20 of 22 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns. “A lot of the things they might have been letting slip in years past, we’re not letting slip now. A senior like Palcho has done a great job of policing that and making sure the standard was set of what we wanted to be, and it’s starting to flourish.”