Illinois Football: Bret Bielema is restoring the Illini to unthinkable heights

The Illinois football program continues to shock the nation week in and week out, and it’s fun.

The last time the Illini were remotely this good, I was in 6th grade. I wasn’t following the football program, nor did I even understand what Big Ten football was (outside of watching Michigan State every week).

As I got older and my fandom grew, so did my knowledge of college football and its respective conferences and universities.

Five months removed from graduating from Illinois, I had always planned to go to my first homecoming game as an alumni, regardless of what the Illini’s record was. Little did I know that this game against Minnesota, a rematch of a 14-6 Illini upset win from 2021, would mean so much more to a program, a campus, and a city. A city that has been starving for a winner to finally happen.

The date is October 15, and the Illini have a chance to reach heights that looked improbable just 11 months ago. Milestones have included snapping a six-game losing streak against Northwestern, a 20-year road drought against Wisconsin, and a 14-year drought against Iowa, all in less than two seasons.

How did the Illinois football program turn it around?

Head coach Bret Bielema practically cleaned house at the conclusion of the 2021 season, a year that saw the Illini finish 5-7 and regain the Land of Lincoln trophy from Northwestern during Thanksgiving weekend at Memorial Stadium.

Little did anyone know that those series of wins against Penn State, Minnesota, and the Wildcats would serve as a springboard for the 2022 season. And thus far, the Illini have over-delivered, thanks in large part to the stellar play of a no-touchdown, bend but don’t break, defense, along with an offensive ground-and-pound rushing attack, led by Chase Brown.

At 5-1 (2-1 B1G), the Illini have a chance to clinch a bowl berth for the first time since 2019, needing six wins to make it a reality. To go along with that success, the Orange and Blue are ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2011 at No. 24.

Bielema discussed that while there is more work to be done, he is pleased with the direction of his program.

…But when that came through yesterday, I was literally just, just sat there for a moment kind of digested it and thought about it,” Bielema said when discussing being ranked. “I thought it was a good thing. I grew up playing for Coach (Hayden) Fry, and he used to say ‘Partner, if you done it, you ain’t bragging.’ And that’s why I showed one of the first graphics I showed our players. Because I know other people are going to talk about it. So it’s a product of what they built and what they’ve tried to accomplish. But it’s definitely not our ending point that is hopefully just a catalyst in the future.”

The Illini will have a chance to maintain its ranking with a home win during the Illini’s 112th homecoming alumni celebration.