Illinois Fighting Illini correspondent Thumpasaurus is not known for the stability of his emotional state around these parts, so there’s really only one approach he can take to deliver a truly complete analysis:
Hello and welcome to the Off Tackle Empire show’s finale from Illinois Week here in B1G 2023! I’m Inquisitive Thumpasaurus and I’m proud to be your host for this last program, where we will tackle some important questions about the Fighting Illini that many of our viewers are asking. We’ve assembled a panel of experts on Illini football and at this time I’d like to introduce them to the show. Please give a warm welcome to Depression Thumpasaurus, Pragmatic Thumpasaurus and Belligerent Thumpasaurus!
first is the worst
Second is, all things considered, the appropriate order in which for me to be introduced. Thank you for having me.
REDUCE MY AIRTIME BY INTRODUCING ME LAST ALL YOU WANT.
I WILL ONLY YELL MY TRUTH LOUDER.
you know this is why we’re not big on the 2023 internet, right? because you did a bit that people liked and didn’t run it into the ground to the point that it lost all meaning?
When we last convened, Bret Bielema had yet to coach a game for Illinois and there was substantial disagreement on what his tenure would bring.
Since this time, the Fighting Illini have had seasons of five and eight wins respectively. With the best Illini football season in fifteen years under his belt, Bielema now has a winning overall record as the head coach of the Fighting Illini. What has been the key to his early success?
I ALREADY EXPLAINED IT TO YOU TWO YEARS AGO. THE BASIC COMPETENCE BUS IS BEING DRIVEN BY THE BIG TEN’S RALPH KRAMDEN, AND ONE OF THESE DAYS, PURDUE...POW! RIGHT IN THE TRAINHOLE!
By some miracle, my belligerent colleague’s prediction was the closest to reality from this panel. Bielema assembled a quality coaching staff that was able to do something we haven’t seen in many years in Champaign: put players in the best position to succeed. He retained as much of the existing roster as he could and capitalized on the talent that was already there in 2021, then brought in a few pieces for 2022 that made a pretty substantial difference. The defense under DC Ryan Walters was unreal and made the most out of Lovie Smith’s knack for finding DB prospects with NFL tools. The offense under Tony Petersen had growing pains in 2021, but Bielema cut bait and brought in a new coordinator that was able to scheme an offense that did just enough to let Illinois lean on that ferocious defense. The very first Bert team in Champaign defied all logic and actually improved over the course of the year. That’s just not something we’re used to seeing.
bielema did happen to find a perfect storm with this defense when he brought in ryan walters to coach lovie smith’s leftovers, guys with the length and athleticism to win at the big ten level. and now walters is gone and so is the secondary and chase brown.
so basically, we hit on a generational defensive coordinator who had great potential just lying around. just like every illini winning season of the last 30 years, everything converges for one season and then the next year none of those things return and we’re right back where we started.
it helps that the big ten west also sucks
THE BIG TEN WEST HAS ALWAYS SUCKED. ILLINOIS WAS JUST NEVER EQUIPPED TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT.
and now they’re unequipped because the guy responsible left for purdue boilermakers
That brings me to my next point. Illini fans have sung the praises of Ryan Walters since fairly early in Bielema’s first season, and now he struck while the iron was hot and parlayed his tremendous work at Illinois into a Big Ten head coaching job. How does the defense change in his absence and what do you think of his outlook as Purdue’s head coach?
Well, history is littered with young up-and-coming P5 coordinators that failed as head coaches...and also many who succeeded! Walters took Cory Patterson, Kevin Kane and some graduate assistants with him and then brought in Graham Harrell to run the offense. Trying to keep things similar on the offensive end is a pretty reasonable thing to do when you’re a defense-oriented head coach. There’s some uncertainty as Purdue will have to learn a new defensive system, but Walters did similar work as a coordinator at Illinois. Head coaching is a different game though.
purdue with a good defense is a frightening proposition and now we’ve let that happen by not locking down walters somehow. walters was more important than bielema to this operation. it would be extremely illinois to get smacked around by their one time hero.
RYAN WALTERS WANTS YOU ALL TO KNOW THAT EVERY GOOD THING AT ILLINOIS WAS HIS FAULT AND NOTHING BAD WAS. HE JUST KEEPS RUNNING HIS MOUTH ABOUT THAT SHIT ON THE INTERNET. WRITING CHECKS WITH YOUR MOUTH BY BEEFING ON TWITTER WITH A RIVAL HEAD COACH BEFORE YOU EVEN COACH A GAME IS A BOLD MOVE. LET’S SEE IF HIS ASS CAN CASH THEM.
I’M SICK AND TIRED OF ALL THESE TEAMS IN THE BIG TEN WEST WITH NEW COACHES ARE GOING TO BE SO GREAT RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE. WISCONSIN, NEBRASKA AND PURDUE ARE APPARENTLY NOT SUBJECT TO THE GROWING PAINS MOST NEW COACHING STAFFS BRING. PURDUE LOST A LOT OF THEIR PLAYERS AND WILL BE RUNNING NEW SCHEMES.
RYAN WALTERS HAS NEVER WON THE PURDUE CANNON AND HE’S NOT ABOUT TO START.
DID YOU FORGET ABOUT THE LAW FIRM?
It’s not just Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph that return, but the whole front seven! Half of the defensive staff did in fact stay on at Illinois including new DC Aaron Henry, who was the secondary coach under Walters.
DID RYAN WALTERS REALLY MAKE THAT SECONDARY GREAT ON HIS OWN? GUESS WE’LL FIND OUT!
(WE’LL FIND OUT RIGHT NOW. THE ANSWER IS NO.)
walters did indeed do work with the secondary. so we might have just elevated a coattail-rider.
the whole defense ran through devon witherspoon. the pass rush was generated by stifling coverage. three of them got drafted. did you see what happened to the pass rush when taz nicholson got hurt? suddenly newton could be double-teamed and that’s what happened against purdue
YOU KNOW WHAT ELSE HAPPENED AGAINST PURDUE? WE PLAYED UNDER DIFFERENT PASS INTERFERENCE RULES THAN WE HAD ALL YEAR. AGAINST A TEAM THAT PASSES A LOT. THE GAME WAS OFFICIATED IN A WAY THAT DEBILITATED THE ILLINI. HOW ELSE CAN YOU EXPLAIN THIS
Devon Witherspoon interception— Illinois Football Focus (@IlliniFB) November 12, 2022
But refs say this was defensive pass interference and call it back. pic.twitter.com/JdhOsqZz4Z
While it is true that Illinois loses most of their starting secondary, they got quality reps from Xavier Scott and Tyler Strain as relief corners, and even if we take at face value that Ryan Walters is The DB Whisperer, Illinois has guys on the roster with 1-2 years of his coaching under their belt. Taz Nicholson was pretty good last year as well; he’ll be back. Henry isn’t going to change the scheme much. Bielema brought in NFL guy Charlie Bullen to coach linebackers and he’s actually done some good work recruiting. Even if this defense takes a step back, it will still be a top-25 unit. There’s just too much returning experience for it not to. Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph will anchor the line with TeRah Edwards in the middle. Freshman All-American Gabe Jacas will line up opposite Seth Coleman as an edge rusher, with Tarique Barnes returning at MLB.
NO LOVE FOR BIG TIME TOMMY DEVITO? THE BEST QUARTERBACK WE’VE SEEN IN A DECADE?
so...uh...better than reilly o’toole? okay buddy.
my biggest concern with the offense is that last year’s offensive line was not as good as chase brown made them look. he was getting hit in the backfield a lot and gaining yards anyway. worryingly, the offense was very bad inside the opponent’s 10. i don’t know why the interior of the offensive line got worse, but they couldn’t get push against anyone. the offensive line was better in 2021.
Didn’t we all say the offensive line would be an area of concern last year though? Even if they were as bad as you say, isn’t that above what we expected before the season started? They had lost multiple four-year starters and the depth was a concern. Bret Bielema has been rebuilding that depth from day one on the job. The trenches are his priority, and there’s every reason to expect that this offensive line will improve. Only Alexes Palczewski and Pihlstrom depart, but crucially their replacements have logged good game reps. Reggie Love showed some burst last year, and if Josh McCray can stay healthy he’s a bowling ball between the tackles. All of the receivers and tight ends return, and a second year in the same offense should help.
isaiah williams is the only one of that group that’s in any way special and he’s more of a scatback than a downfield threat. tommy devito broke the cycle of disappointing transfer guys. i don’t know how you replace a quarterback that mostly hits the open guy and can get short first downs on qb sneaks. at least i don’t know how illinois does. luke altmeyer isn’t the first high profile recruit to transfer to illinois to play quarterback. those have been going poorly.
LISTEN YOU LITTLE SHIT, I TOLD YOU MANY TIMES AND I’VE GOT ONE MORE IN ME. ALL THE RULES THAT KEEP ILLINOIS FOOTBALL DOWN NO LONGER APPLY. WE’RE ALLOWED TO HAVE A HIGH PROFILE QUARTERBACK BE GOOD. DEVITO WAS UNHERALDED; ALTMEYER WAS A 4* WHO’S BEEN STUDYING WITH LANE KIFFIN. WE HAVE A GUY WITH THE PHYSICAL TOOLS TO MAKE THIS OFFENSE TWO-DIMENSIONAL.
GOD DAMMIT, LUKE ALTMEYER WILL BE A MORE COMPLETE PASSER THAN MY BELOVED BIG TIME TOMMY SO HELP ME GOD.
FIND ME A BRET BIELEMA TEAM THAT GETS MANHANDLED IN THE TRENCHES—
and i’ll show you one that gets him fired
THAT...MAY BE, BUT THAT JUST MEANS WE’RE MOVING ON QUICKLY FOR ONCE.
BERT GETS IT. HE BROUGHT THE STRIPES BACK TO THE HELMET. HE DITCHED THE GRAY HOMECOMING UNIFORMS. HE GOES ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND STICKS UP FOR HIS GUYS WHEN THEY GET JOBBED. LOOK IN SPRINGFIELD: BIG BOYS GET THINGS DONE FAST IN ILLINOIS.
Well, the season will be here faster than you think, so let’s look at the schedule and discuss the outlook for the Fighting Illini. Home games against Toledo, Penn State, FAU Owls, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers, Indiana and Northwestern, and road trips to Kansas, Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Iowa. In the final year of Big Ten West competition, how do we feel?
LIKE WE LEFT SOMETHING ON THE TABLE AND HAVE SOME UNFINISHED BUSINESS
or like we blew our last chance at a meaningful title. remember when i predicted that kansas would be good by the time we played them? well they made a bowl last year didn’t they
Looks like we’ve all made some predictions that have borne fruit. The game at Kansas is quite the interesting test, as it’s Bielema versus a coach in Lance Leipold that many including myself wanted Illinois to hire instead.
Penn State always has the talent to play with anyone in the country, but they always blow a tire somewhere along the way. A 3-0 start to the season would make me think historic win totals are on the table, but let’s not get carried away. That’s not what I do. It’s hard not to expect six wins; Toledo is not quite the Matt Campbell monster of yore and FAU should be stress-free. The closest margin of victory for the Berting Illini against Northwestern is 34 points. Indiana at home represents an opportunity to exorcise a demon that haunted the team last year. There’s no game on the schedule that they absolutely can’t win, but Penn State in Week 3 looks like the toughest test. Maryland on the road also might be a real problem.
Iowa and Minnesota will be rock fights and it’s too early to tell how the Wisconsin and Nebraska games are going to go. I have to lean Illinois in those due to experience and home field advantage.
PURDUE BETTER BUCKLE THE FUCK UP, IF WE LOSE THE BIG TEN WEST THIS YEAR IT’S SURE AS SHIT NOT GONNA BE TO THEM.
YOU’RE TELLING ME YOU DON’T SEE A SURE LOSS ON THE SCHEDULE AND YOU’RE SAYING SIX WINS? IT’S STARING YOU IN THE FACE: ILLINOIS WINS THE WEST. WISCONSIN IS A PAPER TIGER, IOWA IS IOWA AND SO IS MINNESOTA, NEBRASKA HAS A SLIGHT MESS TO CLEAN UP, HOLY SHIT NORTHWESTERN, AND WE ALREADY TALKED PURDUE. I CAN TELL WE TALKED PURDUE BECAUSE I’M FURIOUS
Aren’t you usually furious? And anyway, I didn’t say a win total. I believe Illinois will win seven games this year.
that’s cute. that’s adorable. do you know what happens when illinois wins 8 games in a season?
we win five the following year.
this is a 5-7 season.
every single time in the last 30 years the fighting illini have won 8 or more games, the next season has been a 5-win campaign. why should we expect anything different?
HOW MANY FUCKING TIMES DO I HAVE TO SAY IT
THAT ERA IS OVER. THIS IS ILLINOIS FOOTBALL AND IT’S REALLY HAPPENING. TEN WINS ARE ON THE TABLE THIS YEAR. I WON’T BE TOO MAD ABOUT LOSING TO MARYLAND, BERT IS MY BRO AND WE BOTH GET SLOWED DOWN BY CRABS SOMETIMES. BUT THIS DIVISION CAN BE OURS. I KNOW ONE THING: THIS IS A WINNING SEASON. ILLINOIS WILL WIN MORE THAN THEY LOSE. BOOK IT.
THINGS ARE DIFFERENT NOW. WE’RE GOING TO SELL OUT A GAME THIS YEAR. WE’RE GETTING A SOLID IF UNSPECTACULAR RECRUITING CLASS, AND THAT ACTUALLY MEANS SOMETHING THIS TIME BECAUSE WE HAVE COACHES THAT CAN DEVELOP THESE PLAYERS.
FUCK YOU. REALITY IS ALIGNING TO ME NOW. I DRANK SO MUCH DURING THE LOVIE SMITH ERA THAT THE GRAVITY OF POWER IN THE BIG TEN SHIFTED TOWARDS CHAMPAIGN DUE TO THE SHEER VOLUME.
Well, gentlesaurs, I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today. Season previews aren’t actually supposed to be happening until August, but I just got so excited to see Illinois Week so late in the calendar! Thank you so much for joining us, I’m Inquisitive Thumpasaurus signing off.