CHAMPAIGN — One constant for Illinois football in the years since the program first played Virginia 31 years ago is one coaches, players and fans never want to see.
Lack of an identity. Or at least a consistent one.
The 1990 Citrus Bowl win against the Cavaliers on New Year’s Day is a significant moment during the past three decades for Illinois. The 31-21 victory led by Jeff George and friends capped off one of only two 10-win seasons in the last 31 years and snapped a 26-year drought between bowl victories for the Illini.
Heading into Saturday’s 10 a.m. kickoff against Virginia at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., the 2021 Illini are searching for a consistent product this season.
It’s understandable, at least to rational folks.
After all, Bret Bielema and nearly his entire coaching staff have only been around these players for a little more than eight months. Their likely starting quarterback on Saturday, Art Sitkowski, didn’t arrive in Champaign until a few months ago, knowing Memorial Stadium only from an ill-fated start as Rutgers’ quarterback in 2019.
Injuries have affected depth issues at running back and the team’s top receiver, Isaiah Williams, was a quarterback as recently as mid-April.
The defense is still adjusting to new coordinator’s Ryan Walters’ scheme, evident by Texas San Antonio picking apart the Illini to almost 500 yards of total offense this past Saturday night.
But by the time the Illini charter plane lands back at Willard Airport in Savoy on Saturday evening, this season is already one-fourth complete.
“It’s just flown by,” Bielema said.
True. And now, it’s time for Illinois to establish an identity. Throwing the ball more than 40 times — like Illinois did against UTSA out of necessity in trying to come back — likely isn’t the formula Bielema and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen want to see. Getting nice weather in the Midwest in November is a tricky proposition.
Neither does sticking the ball repeatedly into the gut of Chase Brown, Reggie Love, Mike Epstein and the cavalcade of running backs Illinois has used through the first two games, ignoring the pass game completely.
A balanced offensive approach that continues to control the clock is more what Bielema likely wants to see.
Forcing turnovers was ingrained in the minds of veteran Illini linebacker Jake Hansen and several other of his teammates during Lovie Smith’s tenure. The jury is still out on just what the Illini will look like on that side of the ball under Walters.
Saturday presents an opportunity for Illinois to deliver some concise answers about what to expect the rest of the season. And a chance to recapture some of the good vibes established in the hours after the season-opening win against Nebraska.
All the Illini have to do is look at Virginia as a blueprint. The Cavaliers had modest success during the Al Groh era of the 2000s before the program slipped during six seasons of Mike London — who, ironically, was back at Scott Stadium last Saturday night when the team he coaches now, William & Mary, was the recipient of a 43-0 shutout by Virginia.
Bronco Mendenhall was on the home sidelines for that victory, his latest in charge of Virginia. The 55-year-old coach made his reputation by winning at BYU, similar to what Bielema did at Wisconsin, and then opened some eyes by taking the Virginia job prior to the 2016 season, similar to what Bielema did in leaping from Wisconsin to Arkansas ahead of the 2013 season.
Mendenhall is still one game under .500 at Virginia, carrying a 31-32 record into Saturday, but he has guided three teams to bowl games and could have last season before the Cavaliers opted not to play in one amid the COVID-19 pandemic-affected season.
“I’ve got tremendous respect for Coach Mendenhall,” Bielema said. “He has really turned the tide there. It’s a tremendous task in front of us.”
Granted, Saturday’s first-ever regular-season game between Illinois and Virginia doesn’t have quite the same implications John Mackovic’s Illini had going into the first college football game in 1990.
The first college football game this upcoming Saturday, though, is still an important measuring stick for Bielema’s program.
“Two things that can happen from a loss is obviously the start of a losing mentality where there’s a string of losses or with the acceptance and awareness to make sure they don’t happen again,” Bielema said. “Hopefully, our guys are going to be wired into that second phase a lot stronger because they’re the only ones who make that decision.”
Let’s see how their choices play out on Saturday.