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At Least You Can Always Count On Illinois Football Never Changing

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Feel like I’ve been here before

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Illinois
dazed and confused
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

When you see familiar faces
But you don’t remember where they’re from
Could you be wrong?
When you’ve been particular places
That you know you’ve never been before
Can you be sure?
‘Cause you know this has happened before
And you know that this moment in time is for real
And you know when you feel deja-vu
-Iron Maiden, Deja Vu

Feel like I’ve been here before.

After Illinois played Nebraska in week 0 only for Illinois to emerge victorious by playing a more disciplined and controlled game than the opponent, Bret Bielema’s coaching chops were lauded by various Illini reporters out there in the Illiniverse. While Frost clearly contributed greatly to Nebraska’s demise, we Illinois fans insisted on pointing out that it had only resulted in an Illini victory because things were different this time!

Enter a plucky, upstart G5 team with a young head coach and an offensive playmaker.

Are we talking about Eastern Michigan’s Mike Glass? Kent State’s Woody Barrett? Ball State’s Riley Neal? Western Michigan’s Jamauri Bogan? Perhaps it’s Texas State quarterback Tyler Jones or Quinton Patton of Lousiana Tech. Maybe it’s Ryan Mathews of Fresno State, who was only there for the 2009 game, not the 2010 edition. Maybe we’re talking about Tim Fucking Hiller.

No, this time it’s the UTSA Roadrunners and their dynamic back Sincere McCormick. UTSA played their first season back in 2011, when Illinois was capable of barely holding off Alex Carder’s passing attack for Western Michigan. UTSA’s first season of playing football at any level was also the last time Illinois won more games than they lost.

This game is simply a thing that happens in around half of Illinois seasons. It usually results in a loss, although a fourth quarter comeback propelled us past Kent State in 2018, a blocked field goal held off Ball State in 2017 and Josh Ferguson put the team on his back to beat Texas State in 2014.

It’s most commonly associated with the early parts of a coach’s tenure, though Ron Zook was in year six when his team outrushed Fresno 315-60 and still lost.

Slight variations, but the core plot never changes.

Outgained? Check. Ever since Zook, we’ve lost these games when outgained. Zook excelled at losing these games despite a yardage advantage.

Pushed around at the line of scrimmage? Check. It wasn’t quite as bad as Western outrushing us 287-3, but 217-146 is pretty bad when your offensive line is supposed to be a strength and your quarterback is Art Sitkowski.

Slight variations, but the core plot never changes.

Giving the ball right back to the opponent on a punt return? Check. It took until game 2 for Bret Bielema to continue our time-honored tradition of giving up long first downs on punts. I have never known Illinois to not have this problem since I was in college. We’re on our third AD and our 4.5th coach. This is our identity far more than anything Nike tries to pin to us. Forget the kingfisher or the Block I, our helmet should feature a cartoon of Carmoni Green diving on a loose punt and turning it over against Rutgers. Maybe our throwback can have Jack Ramsey blowing out his knee backing up to field a punt and letting it bounce off him.

Slight variations, but the core plot never changes.

Blow a chance to win despite looking worse all game? Check. Just like MJ Rivers at Soldier Field in 2018, Artur Sitkowski sailed the last-chance pass high out of the back of the end zone.

Slight variations, but the core plot never changes.

In 2012 and 2016, the first-year head coach ended up playing a lot of underclassmen in their G5 home losses. In Tim Beckman’s case, the seniors hated him. In Lovie’s case, he hated them. In 2021, Bret Bielema actually played all the seniors that were healthy, but it was just a slight variation that didn’t ultimately affect the core plot.

I don’t know what the coaches could have done differently in the game except maybe to ensure Derrick Smith never sees the field at safety again. They keyed on Sincere McCormick to force a shaky passing game to beat them, and said passing game did just that. If anything, that’s even more discouraging because UTSA simply brought a better team than we did and controlled the game wire to wire.

Bret Bielema had a chance to prove that things were different this time. I’m sick and tired of losing at home to these kinds of teams and then being told that it’s unrealistic for me to expect any success before year 4. Rutgers and Purdue both changed narratives at their programs in year 1 of a new coach, and in Purdue’s case, he’s not even really panning out like they’d hoped!

You know who else defied the narrative? Kansas. Coach Lance Leipold, who I had wanted for the Illini job. defeated a Dakota to start 1-0. We play a home-and-away with Kansas in 2023/2024 and when we get there, I’m sure we’ll lose and be told that it’s not realistic to expect to compete with Kansas in year 3 and 4 of a coach’s tenure.

Instead, Bielema played the part of just another Illinois football head coach losing at home to a plucky upstart G5 team. He’ll get another chance to win this exact same scenario against Charlotte in four weeks. They just went on the road to hosted a mostly-hapless power conference team in Duke and won 31-28. Duke managed to run for over 350, but gave up 10 third down conversions in 18 chances. Charlotte’s more of a passing team, but I’m sure their running game will find its footing in Champaign.

In the next few years, we host Wyoming, Toledo, FAU, Central Michigan, Ohio and Western Michigan. It’s gonna be really fun to play Wyoming next year when every starting offensive lineman from this season is gone.

Those last two are in 2025. Those might be great opportunities for our next coach to faceplant by making some slight variations on the same core plot.

The only thing that ever changes is that the attendance is lower every time this happens.

*P.S.: Bert might very well take the Illini to the QuickLane Bowl one year! Shit, he might even get to Music City some day! That doesn’t mean he won’t keep losing this exact same game, just like every Illini coach of the last 30 years. Ron Turner won a goddamn outright Big Ten championship and then immediately lost to San Jose State at home.