CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois football team has a prime-time television slot on Friday at 8 p.m. against Maryland on Fox Sports 1, and first-year Illini coach Bret Bielema doesn’t plan to waste the occasion.
His team made a strong opening case in a 30-22 home win against Nebraska on Aug. 28 as the first Power Five game of the college football season, before withering in losses to UTSA and Virginia.
“We’ll be the only team on college football that night, a big stage for us nationally and to have a Big Ten opponent in Maryland who has never been here before,” Bielema said. “To have an opportunity for us to continue into Big Ten play is exactly what we need right now.”
While the Illini do have some company on Friday night, with UCF playing at Louisville at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN, there will be some additional eyeballs on Memorial Stadium as the late-night football game. But there’s one big catch, of course, and it’s that Friday nights are synonymous with high school football.
Bielema knows about that, too.
“I remember when they first came into the league there was some opposition, obviously conflicting with Friday night football goes into it,” he said, “but it is a unique opportunity.”
Plenty of prospects have made their way to campus in recent weeks and over the summer, but the vast majority of them will be occupied with their own games on Friday night, or they’ll be resting up for Saturday morning or afternoon games.
“We don’t have a huge invite list,” Bielema said. “If they’re not playing on Friday, they’re playing on Saturday, and they’re not coming to games on Friday night. So we had some local high schools that we reached out to when their seasons were canceled, that we allow them to come in here and be visitors. So we have some special situations, but for the most part, Friday will be all about our game plan.”
After the Illini get off the field against the Terrapins, they’ll fire up their phones for their usual Friday night activities: sending congratulatory texts to prospects who tore it up on the field, or checking up on them in general.
“As always, the first thing we do when we get scores on Friday night is react,” Bielema said. “After our game, I’m sure we’ll send out some congratulations and best wishes to people that did it.”
Bielema is planning to hit the recruiting trail early on Saturday before Purdue — the Illini’s opponent on Sept. 25 — kicks off at 1:30 p.m. at No. 12 Notre Dame.
“It’s going to allow us the opportunity to have a full day of recruiting for us as a staff,” Bielema said.
Illinois enters Friday with the ninth-best Class of 2022 in the Big Ten, according to 247sports.
While Bielema and his staff have landed their fair share of in-state prospects — nine of the 16 commits hail from the Land of Lincoln — there is still work to do.
Bielema also pointed out that the early start to the season gave Illinois a second off week later in the fall, during which the staff can bolt off to various locations to recruit.
When most teams are playing their Week 7 games in mid-October, the Illini will have already played theirs and have time off before their Oct. 23 trip to Penn State. After games against Rutgers (Oct. 30) and Minnesota (Nov. 6), Illinois has another off week before playing at Iowa on Nov. 20.
Those off weeks later in the season give the staff chances to schedule in-home recruiting visits and more time to allocate toward relationship-building and evaluations.
Regardless of what happens on the field this season — and on Friday night — the recruiting stakes are already high for Bielema.
“Obviously, because we’re playing on Friday night, we won’t be out this Friday,” Bielema said. “But we’ll begin to sprinkle that in over the next couple months here.”