CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema always intended to use his team’s bye week following Saturday’s game against Wisconsin as an opportunity for evaluation.
No game next week also means Bielema and the Illinois football staff will hit the recruiting trail as much as humanly possible — or as much as NCAA regulations allow — but it’s a chance to reflect on where the team finds itself seven games into the 2021 season.
The result of Saturday’s game against Wisconsin won’t change Bielema’s approach. Or even how he had already begun to evaluate his team. The first-year Illinois coach already knew where his team was deficient.
All of those deficiencies were on display Saturday afternoon in front of a homecoming crowd of 40,168 spectators on a warm afternoon at Memorial Stadium. An offense with nothing going for it though the air. A defense that’s struggled to get stops on third down and get off the field.
The outcome? A 24-0 loss where Wisconsin rushed for 391 yards, while Illinois couldn’t even muster 100 yards of total offense.
“We have five guaranteed games left to get as much as we can out of those five games,” Bielema said of what awaits his team after the bye week. “Where that leads, nobody knows. I do know if we take this week to really take an internal check and find out what we do well and what we don’t do well, as coaches, and improve on that, we’ll continue taking a step forward.”
If they do, great. But Saturday’s performance was undoubtedly a step back for a program that is two losses away from its 11th straight losing season.
“Unfortunately, this is another step in the process that’s very painful to go through, but the worst thing we could do is leave it behind like it never happened,” Bielema said. “We’ve got to own it and know what it means to walk off the field feeling like we just did without scoring a point and walking off against a Big Ten opponent, where we didn’t do what we needed to do.”
Illinois (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten) didn’t manage much against Wisconsin (2-3, 1-2). The Badgers dominated time of possession, holding the ball nearly 43 minutes while converting third down after third down and a couple fourth downs, too.
The Illini offense was even less successful and didn’t get into Wisconsin territory until midway through the fourth quarter. Illinois’ run game gained zero traction against the Badgers’ No. 1-ranked run defense, which only put more pressure on a passing game that has been nonexistent for weeks.
Brandon Peters completed 3 of 7 passes for 12 yards before he got hurt in the second quarter. Backup quarterback Art Sitkowski, who has received more reps in practice the past few weeks, was 8 of 27 through the air for 55 yards and shouldered the responsibility for his 30-percent completion rate despite some shaky pass protection that had him on the move or taking hits as he tried to throw.
“I’ve got to do a better job of closing my front shoulder, getting my hips through and putting the ball where it needs to be,” Sitkowski said. “I’ve got to do my job. Whatever’s called of me, I’ve got to do it. … I’ve got to do my job and motivate those around me to do their job, too.”
Bielema placed Illinois’ disconnect in the passing game on the protection issues from the offensive line, the physical act of the pass and catch and on what offensive Tony Petersen is scheming. Not running the ball successfully the ball against Wisconsin — Chase Brown had eight carries for 35 yards to lead the team — put the Illini in even more of a pickle because of their lackluster passing game.
“I knew it would be tough sledding in the run game,” Bielema said. “We just aren’t at a point executing the throw game that gives you a chance in this type of game. We’ll continue to work on it. We can’t just accept that we can’t do it. We’ve got to double down.”
Brown had one of two chunk plays for Illinois with a 23-yard rush. Sitkowski’s 16-yard completion to Donny Navarro was the only other time the Illini moved the sticks in a big way.
“Really, we just need a spark,” Illinois wide receiver Isaiah Williams said. “That’s where playmakers have to come in. They’ve got to make a play, be a spark. That’s all it is — making that play so we can get some momentum. … We’ve got to put points up on the board, but (the shutout) won’t mess up our confidence. We’re going to keep attacking it, but to have zero points is unacceptable.”
Finding that spark is a bye week goal. So is using the practice time effectively to hone in on fundamentals — both for players in the two-deep and the Illini’s developmental group.
“They’ll tell me a lot what they want to do on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday if they want to work or if they want to sit around and feel sorry for themselves,” Bielema said. “By no means is this part of the process that we wanted to go through to be 2-5, but unfortunately, it is what it is. To live in the reality of the moment has to be big for me as a head coach to get that across to our coaches, and our coaches to get it across to our players.”