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In the days leading up to Saturday's game, a story making the rounds in Illini circles was The Athletic's question-and-answer session with a handful of anonymous Illinois high school coaches about recruiting in the state. If you're a subscriber to The Athletic, you can read the article here.
In the piece, the author, Matt Fortuna, specifically asks the various coaches about their impression of Bret Bielema and the Illinois staff. I won't reveal much more about their feelings, but if you've got a subscription to The Athletic -- or even if you don't; I had let my subscription lapse, but I re-upped to read the piece -- it's well worth the read.
One thing that stood out to me, though, was the way they talked about Pat Fitzgerald. Love him or hate him, Fitzy has recruited the state very well, and has built great relationships with a lot of the schools up and down the state. One of the coaches even referenced Fitzgerald sending him his "usual text message" telling him good luck in an upcoming game.
I thought about the piece often as Saturday's game was ongoing. One win does not change the score, figuratively, between the two schools in the past decade or so. But it doesn't mean nothing, either.
From the outset, Bielema's goal has been to pull Illinois even with Northwestern, both on and off the field. From Freeport to Cairo, from Quincy to Danville, Bielema has made it clear that he thinks more Illinois kids should be staying home. And not in Evanston, but in Champaign.
The early results have been promising in that regard. Nine of his 17 commits thus far are in-state kids, and per 247sports' composite rankings, four of the top six recruits in the class are Illinois kids. The class is currently ranked No. 45 in the country, four spots behind Northwestern. So, he's not just targeting quantity, but quality as well.
(Amazingly, the No. 45 class in the country would be the highest-ranked Illini recruiting class since 2011, even higher than the 2019 class that included four-star prospects Marquez Beason, Isaiah Williams and Shammond Cooper. And that 2011 class apparently had 29 kids? Wild.)
So, it seems as though Bielema is getting closer to bridging the gap between the two programs off the field. That was another theme running through the Athletic piece -- not that Bielema is emulating Fitz, per se, because Bielema recruited the state at a high level when he was with Wisconsin and surely knows how to make an impression, but in-state high school coaches are having a harder time drawing a distinction between the way Illinois and Northwestern operate than they did with previous Illini regimes. There's just not a lot that separates the effort level in recruiting right now.
And Saturday hopefully showed that there's not much separating the on-field products. Admittedly, it was a down year for Northwestern, one that is likely viewed more as a blip than a sign of real trouble. But this year was the second year in the past three seasons that Northwestern's scoring offense has been ranked in the 120s among the 130 FBS teams. It's not an easy fix by any stretch.
The previously-mentioned quote about Fitzgerald sending his "usual text message" was a snippet of a longer answer about Bielema. The question was, "What are your impressions of Bret Bielema and his staff in the year since they took over at Illinois?" The coach, a head coach in the Chicago area, said this:
I was just thinking about this the other day. I got my usual text message from Fitz -- "Good luck," all that great stuff -- and it was followed up with a message from Bret Bielema. And I can tell right now, Illinois, I'm getting handwritten letters all the time. They are doing a damn good job of just re-branding themselves among the high school coaches in Illinois. Northwestern, it used to be unique to them. Illinois is doing it too now.
The playing field certainly appears to be leveling, in all facets.
-I've become increasingly convinced as the year has gone on that the key to everything is finding the right quarterback this offseason.
That's an incredibly lukewarm take, of course, because saying "good quarterbacks matter" isn't exactly First Take fodder. It just seems that the right quarterback -- not even the best one, necessarily, just the right one -- makes Bielema and Tony Petersen's system work.
Saturday drove that point home. His 80.7 adjusted QBR was the second-highest of his Illini career, behind only the Rutgers game earlier this year. His accuracy waned as the game went on, but the few big shots early in the game helped demoralize Northwestern and put things out of reach.
What Illinois needs to find on the transfer market this winter is all the best traits about Early Northwestern Game Brandon Peters -- accurate, decisive, accurate, willing to take shots when the protection and coverage allow, accurate. Maybe that means not chasing a dual-threat guy like Florida State's Chubba Purdy, opting to pursue a lesser-heralded but better passing option instead. I'll leave that to the staff.
Getting it right, though, could mean everything for 2022 and beyond.
-The confidence shown by Bielema, Petersen and the Illinois offense was really something.
This was a team that was frustratingly conservative for most of this season, especially in late-game situations against Maryland and Purdue, calling timeouts ahead of second- and third-and-long near the end of the half because they were confident they could move the ball. It was a team that, up 40-7 in the second half, went for it on fourth-and-one from midfield and converted.
The question is whether we can draw any real conclusions from it. Was that just a product of playing a bad Northwestern team and feeling confident they could convert? Was it an isolated incident in a rivalry game? Or did it signify that Bielema and company do have the ability to be aggressive and progressive with their decision-making when they feel the situation warrants it?
Obviously, the hope is that it's the latter. Some well-timed aggression would be a welcome wrinkle for the 2022 Illinois offense.
-Some interesting end-of-season statistics:
- Isaiah Williams' 47 receptions were the most by an Illini receiver since Malik Turner had 48 catches in 2016. More than Josh Imatorbhebhe's memorable 2019 season. More than Ricky Smalling's 2018 in which he was clearly the team's best receiving option. Next up? Mikey Dudek's 69 receptions in his incredible 2014 freshman year. (Geronimo Allison had a pretty terrific 2015 season as well.) You know what to do, Lil Uno.
- Keith Randolph and Jer'Zhan Newton combined for 7.5 sacks, playing a position in a defense that doesn't really lend itself to big-time production. Incredibly promising.
- It's less heralded only because Reggie Corbin had such an impressive season as recently as 2018, but Chase Brown's 1,005-yard season on the ground is worth celebrating. It's only the second 1,000-yard season by an Illini rusher since Mikel Leshoure's monster 2010 season.
- The team forced 17 turnovers. Kerby Joseph was responsible for eight of them.
- Daniel Barker's five total touchdowns was tied for second on the team with Chase Brown, behind only Isaiah Williams' six. If Barker is off to the NFL, as his participation in Senior Day suggests he might be, he will be missed.
-In closing, thanks for once again reading any words I wrote in 2021, and thanks to Robert for letting me write them. I'm always a bit sad when there's no more Illinois football for the year, but this year especially. Looking forward to an exciting 2022 season.
Hail to the Orange.