Postscript, Minnesota

Oct 17, 2022

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Opposites attract.

The Paula Abdul song from the 1980s goes off in some weird directions -- I mean, in the music video, she's flirting with a cartoon cat -- but the message is pertinent. Actually, while I'm quoting pop culture, perhaps the more fitting message is from Owen Wilson's character in "Wedding Crashers": True love is your soul's recognition of its counterpoint in another.

(With references spanning three decades, this feels like a good time to point out that this is Nathan, not Robert. I was two years old when that Paula Abdul song came out. It doesn't make the cartoon cat any less weird.)

The point of all this is to say, most things work best when a balance is struck. There's actually differing opinions in the scientific world about whether opposites truly do attract, but I think few would argue against the idea that a level-headed person and one with a quick trigger work better as a couple than two hotheads. Yin and yang. All of that.

There are a lot of things to take away from Saturday's win over Minnesota, but the biggest, to me, is how well the offense is working right now. In a previous Postscript, I noted how there have been years where one aspect of the offense -- often the running game -- has worked well, but how that lack of balance has held it back as a unit. It's great when AJ Bush and Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein are killing it in the read-option game, but if teams don't have to respect the pass, you're still just a middle-of-the-road offense.

In racking up 472 yards of total offense Saturday, this year's Illini team proved once again that it's not just a one-trick pony. Chase Brown deservedly gets the headlines for his 41-carry, 180-yard day, but as Robert noted, Tommy DeVito's 25-for-32, 252-yard, one-touchdown afternoon should be praised as well. It was, by ESPN's Adjusted QBR, his best game of the season to date.

In total, 129 college quarterbacks qualify for the statistic; DeVito ranks 32nd, sandwiched between a couple of familiar names, Adrian Martinez (now at Kansas State) and Taulia Tagovailoa. He's ahead of guys like Sean Clifford, Will Levis and his Saturday counterpart, Tanner Morgan. In particular, his Week 7 performance was second in the nation, behind only John Rhys Plumlee, who helped UCF drub Temple 70-13 on Thursday. Hendon Hooker enabling Vols fans to throw a goalpost into the Tennessee River? Not as good as Tommy D.

I had a lot of thoughts in the days leading up to Saturday, most of them bad with the expectation that DeVito would be forced to miss the game with his ankle injury. Early in the week, when the betting line had the Gophers at 6.5-point favorites, I told AJ that the "vibes are terrible" and that it was "super depressing to be ranked for the first time in a decade and expect to be unranked a week later." No disrespect to Art Sitkowski -- that's just how much I think DeVito means to this team. And that proved true Saturday.

Another thought I had was of the importance of Saturday's game. It's true that virtually every game has increased in importance as the season has gone on, especially this month, but between being ranked for the first time since 2011 and the implications of the game on the Big Ten West race, Saturday meant as much as any game has since … 2007?

A few minutes before kickoff, I excitedly told my wife as much. This team I love dearly is playing its most important game in a decade and a half. Her response?

"Isn't there someone you could text that to?"

Opposites attract, indeed.

-One funny note from the box score: Because of the lopsided time of possession, Minnesota defensive players were credited with 85 tackles. Illinois defenders? 43.

-If we want to pick nits, Mo Ibrahim had a pretty good day on the ground, and if Minnesota had possessed the ball more than 19:56 he might have had a very good day.

The good news, then, is that Ibrahim and the Minnesota rushing attack is likely the best one the team will face until they head up to the Big House on November 19. And when the opposing team's quarterback is 6-for-18 for 38 yards, you can afford for a bowling ball back to break through the line a couple of times.

-It's striking how aggressive this year's team is on fourth down compared to last year's iteration.

That is, as it's been noted, almost entirely a reflection of Bret Bielema's confidence in Barry Lunney Jr. as compared to Tony Petersen, but it's still shocking to see the shift in philosophy. Illinois was 4-for-4 on fourth down Saturday, and 10-for-16 (62.5 percent) on the season. Last year, they converted just five fourth-down tries and only attempted 13 all season, a 38.46 percent success rate.

Competence breeds confidence.

-It's fascinating to look back at the coaching search and wonder, in a "Sliding Doors" way, where we might be if Josh Whitman had landed on Lance Leipold instead of Bret Bielema. (I prefer to think of it as an "If/Then" way, but I'm guessing the Gwyneth Paltrow film will resonate with more people than the Idina Menzel musical.)

Leipold, of course, left Buffalo a short time later to become the Kansas head coach and has orchestrated a similarly shocking rebuild in short order in Lawrence. The Jayhawks are now unranked after a couple losses in a row (where they were without their starting quarterback, as it were, another reminder of how things might have gone differently Saturday if DeVito wasn't able to go) but they were the No. 19 team in the country heading into the weekend and appear to be for real, even despite the losses and the brutally tough road ahead that may even render them ineligible for a bowl.

There's a decent chance that Leipold would have had similar success in Champaign. He just seems to be a very good coach who's won at every stop, proving that his dominance at Division-III Wisconsin-Whitewater was more about his ability as a coach than his level of competition.

It's his success that brings us to October 17, when, despite only having been at Kansas for a year and a half, his name is being discussed related to several coaching vacancies. When Nebraska fired Scott Frost, Leipold's name was one of the first on everyone's lips. When Wisconsin dismissed Paul Chryst, the whispers got even louder -- Leipold is a Wisconsin native on top of his years at Wisconsin-Whitewater. And even if he's not being discussed for jobs like Arizona State and Georgia Tech, he probably should be.

If, in our parallel universe, he'd been chosen as the next Illinois coach, this is the point where I'd be getting very nervous. Regardless of the momentum in Champaign, we've historically been the ugly stepchild to schools like Nebraska and Wisconsin. There's no reason to think the allure of the culture in Madison or the money in Lincoln wouldn't be strong enough to pull Leipold away from the Illini. And that's not even mentioning jobs that could be coming open in the near future -- SEC gigs like Auburn and potentially even Missouri, perhaps a traditional power like Florida State. Every new opening would be terrifying as an Illinois fan.

Maybe I'm off base, but I just don't feel any of that with Bielema at the helm. Leipold has only ascended as a head coach, and there's no telling what heights he may aspire to ultimately reach. Maybe he does want that SEC job, just to see if he could do it. Maybe he wants to go home, and Wisconsin is his dream job. There's not a lot we know about Lance Leipold's ambitions.

We know more about Bielema's. SEC job? Chased it, stumbled, and learned from it. Going home? He's there. Remember what he said in his first statement to the media?

"Illinois and the Big Ten is home for me, and I can't be any more excited about the opportunity in front of me with the Fighting Illini. We want to build a program that makes Illini Nation proud and regain the passion that I've seen when Illinois wins. We want the young men playing football in the state of Illinois from Freeport to Cairo and from Quincy to Danville dreaming of wearing the Orange and Blue and playing at Memorial Stadium."

In looking for that quote, I also came across this one, from Whitman's statement regarding the hire:

"Bret Bielema is a proven winner. With three Big Ten championships to his credit, few coaches can match his familiarity with, and success within, the Big Ten Conference," said Whitman in a statement. "In our conversations, it became clear to me that he is a life-long learner who is continually looking to grow and improve, and he has enjoyed unrivaled mentorship from some of the game's most distinguished coaches, including Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz, Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, and Bill Belichick - all of them current or future Hall of Famers."

Hayden Fry. Kirk Ferentz. Bill Snyder. Barry Alvarez. Bill Belichick. What do all those names have in common, besides being Hall of Famers? They're all associated with a single school or organization.

In neighboring Coralville, Iowa, there's a bronze statue and a road named Haden Fry Way.

A bronze statue of Barry Alvarez resides in Camp Randall Stadium's Kellner Plaza.

To honor Bill Snyder, Kansas State built a bronze statue of him outside of their football stadium, the Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

These are the people who Bielema considers mentors. People who were such an institution at their schools that they had statues built for them.

So, I'm happy for Kansas and for Leipold. For their sake, I hope he stays a long time and they continue to have success, save for September 9, 2023 and September 7, 2024. But I don't envy Kansas fans, who again this week are probably nervously scanning message boards and Twitter feeds for rumors about Leipold leaving for greener pastures.

This week, my team's coach is also leaving Champaign for greener pastures -- on recruiting trips, from Freeport to Cairo, from Quincy to Danville. To sell his 6-1, No. 18-ranked football team.

Sliding doors? Meh. Best to keep that door closed for the foreseeable future.


ClassOfDeeDeronJames on October 17, 2022 @ 12:18 PM

Agree 100%. We are the biggest program where Coach Bielema can establish a build-him-a-statue legacy. I think he and his family are comfortable here. He already has generational wealth guaranteed. I will be shocked if he ever leaves for a bigger name program unless he is not getting the support he needs from leadership. I don't think Whitman will let that happen.

Nathan on October 18, 2022 @ 03:21 AM

Agree with all of that. As long as Whitman properly invests in him and his staff — and I have no concerns that he won’t — I have a hard time imagining a job that would pull BB away from Champaign.

Brave Illini on October 17, 2022 @ 02:09 PM

Well written piece. Bielema just built a new house here, and U of I is potentially enough of a big-time program that he should be able to remain professionally satisfied here. That presumes he is paid commensurately.

Nathan on October 18, 2022 @ 03:23 AM

Thank you! That’s a great point about building a home — a signal that he expects to be here for the long haul.

jpbrown on October 17, 2022 @ 03:14 PM

The If/Then reference was the icing on top of a wonderful cake of an article. Finding out you and Robert both appreciate theater affirms my support for this site even more.

Nathan on October 17, 2022 @ 07:15 PM


Nathan on October 17, 2022 @ 07:17 PM

I saw If/Then when it came to the Fox a few years ago. Idina wasn’t on the tour, but Anthony Rapp was. Fun musical, even if it wasn’t anyone’s favorite.

detlef on October 18, 2022 @ 03:53 AM

Anthony Rapp Joliet West class of 1988

NJ Illini on October 17, 2022 @ 03:53 PM

What's so great about watching the Illini over the last two seasons, is not feeling like we're being out-coached every game. Remember when Zook (gotta love that guy) would forget what down it was, or how many time outs he had, or how much time was left on the clock?

Nathan on October 18, 2022 @ 03:25 AM

The competency has been a really welcome change, hasn’t it?

Norcal Illini on October 18, 2022 @ 10:51 AM

Lovie recruited a lot of the players who are doing well, but I can't imagine him developing them and having a defensive system that would have had them playing like they are now.

Efremwinters84 on October 17, 2022 @ 08:04 PM

A really great article. And as our success on the field continues to grow, you've appropriately started addressing the biggest question/concern on our minds.

Can we indeed keep our coach and continue to build upon this well-planned, well-designed, and meteoric success?

I do think we have 4-5 things in our favor. This is BB's home state; Josh Whitman is AD; the SEC failure when he previously ventured out; the Big10 is home; and statues.

Nathan on October 18, 2022 @ 03:18 AM

Praise hands emoji

cdwc5000 on October 18, 2022 @ 08:07 AM

I will continue to stress that B1G will not poach a head coach from another B1G school. No AD or Chancellor will sign off on that.

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