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Illinois Fighting Illini Football Was Always Going To Finish 5-7 In 2023

There is no escaping destiny

A common refrain in the wake of Bret Bielema’s shocking 8-win season with the Illinois Fighting Illini football program last year was “things are going to be different this time!” This was supposed to mean that Illinois was no longer destined to repeat the familiar patterns of futility that have defined its modern football era, such as:

  • Illini punt returns and to a lesser extent kickoff returns are big opportunities for our opponents
  • All the calls go against us at home
  • The replacement for a successful assistant coach that left will be much worse
  • A Power 5 team we scheduled when they were horrendous suddenly gets good right before we play them and beats us
  • The thing our coach is supposedly known for is an area of weakness for the team
  • Any season with 8 or more wins is immediately followed by a 5-7 season

In a season that marked the official end of the college football paradigm we all knew and loved, Illinois’ valiant fight against the forces of destiny only proved how truly inescapable they are. This cycle would not be broken. There would be no salvation. Every seasoned Illini fan knew this would happen, and yet it was still a crushing blow when it came to pass.

TL;DR

Ever see the Final Destination movies? The premise is that the main character has a premonition of impending disaster, panics and tries to get everyone around them to leave the situation. The side characters that go with them are confused until the disaster happens exactly as the main character said it would, but without the core group of characters as victims.

These people have cheated death, and over the course of the movie, death comes for what it’s owed.

There’s an absurd humor to the elaborate ways in which death collects its dues, and the movies put characters in obviously dangerous situations only to have something totally unexpected take someone out. All you know for sure is that one way or another, everyone will reach their final destination.

Anyway, that’s how this season played out for Illinois, except instead of “being killed” it was “going 5-7 in the wake of a winning season.” At first, the offense was such a mess that it seemed like they’d undershoot the mark at 2-4, but then a turnaround happened that could have seen them win the division. However, wacky hijinks ensued (giving up 18 unanswered to lose to Wisconsin after the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year was ejected, two dramatic game-winning touchdown passes to Isaiah Williams, not blitzing to stop the run on first down against Iowa after a phantom holding call extended the drive, muffing a punt in your own red zone to set up a short field touchdown and then fumbling the ensuing kickoff for another touchdown) and at the end of the day, the only conclusion you can reasonably draw is that forces beyond our understanding willed this team to go exactly 5-7.

As a result, the main takeaway is that Illinois football is some kind of cosmic joke and will continue its dumb cycle of single isolated successful seasons followed by program meltdowns until such time as they are relegated from the top division of the sport by television executives.

For some reason the header image is cropped, so here it is:

Warning

The below is some of the most self-indulgent stuff I’ve ever written, which is a high bar for me. I think I wrote this more for myself than anyone else, in an effort to reckon with and close the book on the 2023 season. I needed to get this out of my system. I’ve asked the other writers multiple times to do more rational and grounded post-mortems; we’ll see if one surfaces, but in the meantime you’ve been warned.

Make No Mistake Where You Are

Looking back, it was totally irrational for my preseason prediction to imagine a world where Illinois wins 8 games in back-to-back seasons. It would be virtually unprecedented. I had forgotten what a winning season felt like and allowed it to totally destroy my perspective.

Somewhere in the back of my mind though, I knew. All indications were that Illinois could make a bowl game, unless you took into account that God hates this football program and its fans. If you’d taken the most cynical view possible, you’d have predicted that 5-7 right along with Depression Thumpasaurus.

The vibes were nevertheless immaculate heading into the season. Rationally, the neutral observer can see that the hideous fates that have befallen the Fighting Illini have been the result of not hiring coaches that do the things a good college football coach would do. Sometimes they catch lightning in a bottle for one year, but it’s not because they’ve built a program. It doesn’t have to be like it’s always been if you just hire the right coach. Like Dan Campbell in Detroit, Bret Bielema came into 2023 hyped as a transformative figure for a downtrodden football team.

Unlike the Detroit Lions, Illinois Fighting Illini Football would break no cycles.

Your Back’s To The Corner

Illinois hosted Toledo in Week 1 in a game that ended up being their best win. It was a dramatic back-and-forth affair with what would end up being the best team in the MAC’s regular season. Down 19-7 at home, Illinois rallied to score three unanswered touchdowns, but a missed extra point left the door open for Toledo to grab a one point lead. Nevertheless, this wasn’t the same Illinois as usual (or so we thought) and a Caleb Griffin field goal with 5 seconds to go gave the Illini a season-opening victory.

Though Toledo was rightly seen as a quality team, questions remained about the defense and the running game. Quarterback Luke Altmeyer had been the leading rusher in an offense that was not designed to do that.

Now, a date with destiny awaited. I cannot produce receipts at the moment, but ever since Illinois announced a 2023/24 home-and-home with Kansas back in 2014, I have been predicting that Kansas would suddenly rise from the ashes and become a force to be reckoned with just in time for the series. It seemed like a ridiculous prediction, but Illinois has had the misfortune of scheduling Cincinnati in 2009, a Sonny Dykes Louisiana Tech in 2012 that would finish 9-3, North Carolina in Larry Fedora’s peak year of 2015, the best Western Michigan team ever in 2016, Quinton Flowers’ USF Bulls in 2017, the best UTSA team of all time in 2021 and the only good Virginia team in recent memory a week after UTSA. That alone made me sure that Kansas would not only be good by 2023, but would in fact spend until at least 2022 wandering the desert.

This was not the only reason Illinois’ game at Kansas was a test of destiny. Jayhawks coach Lance Leipold had been a very popular pick among Illini fans to replace Lovie Smith. He had been my top candidate, and I was disappointed when I found out we didn’t even interview him. A game against a program with a similarly woeful post-2007 history coached by the guy I wanted to hire instead of Bret Bielema? A victory in Lawrence would go a long way towards proving that things were different now.

Naturally, the Illini defense was torched by Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels in his only game of the 2023 season. The offense was stagnant and the game was never in doubt.

As an aside, Illini men’s basketball star Terrence Shannon, Jr. went to Lawrence to support the football team, and now everyone wishes he hadn’t. If my silence about a top-15 Illini men’s hoops team wasn’t speaking volumes about my thoughts on the whole situation, my Twitter feed provides some clues. Suffice it to say it feels poisonous to uncritically cheer this team and this athletic department at the moment.

A couple days later, my father came home from a rehab center where he had been trying to recover from yet another surgery to remove cancer. Despite his age, I had hoped for the best when this saga first began, but after his last surgery he was given six to twelve months. He began dissociating after that, which was one reason he was at the rehab center. I was hoping to get a few more moments with him once he was able to return home, but he was gone five days later. Knowing it would happen did nothing to blunt the effects of actually living through it.

Two days later, I caught some of Illinois’ five-turnover debacle against Penn State. Sure, they could have made it a game if they hadn’t turned it over five times, but all kinds of good things could have happened that week that never came to pass.

Don’t Be A Fool Anymore

Illinois squeaked out an uncomfortable win against Florida Atlantic before preparing to take on former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters at Purdue. The loss to Purdue last year had cost Illinois a division title and kickstarted a long list of increasingly bad things happening to me personally, but they had replaced the entire coaching staff and much of the roster. I would attend this game in person. Illinois was going to take a step towards the last chance they’d ever get at a meaningful title of any kind in West Lafayette, and I’d be there to see them exorcise this demon from heir breakout 2022 season.

I went to this game as part of a series of distractions I was attempting during this trying time. I was barely sleeping and though I was not looking to Illinois Football of all places for my salvation, I was desperately looking anywhere and everywhere for something positive.

The Purdue offense thoroughly dismantled Illinois in the third quarter with a series of third down conversions so easy that Walters had to be laughing on the sidelines. I don’t know what kind of Mike Ditka/Buddy Ryan thing they had going on, but Walters clearly put a lot of emphasis on beating Illinois. Seeing this particular dream crumble in real time, I actually left the game early in hopes that I could escape this crushing defeat by fleeing to a team that rarely lets me down: Detroit City FC was even with Indy Eleven on the road and I could still make the second half.

My deliverance consisted of the two worst in-game (non-penalty) goals I’ve ever seen stalwart goalkeeper Nate Steinwascher allow, capping off a 3-0 shutout that put Le Rouge on the wrong side of the playoff bubble.

There was simply no escape to be found.

Another 80 year old man passed away next who I held in high esteem: Dick Butkus, the most fearsome linebacker to ever live. Days later, the Illini paid tribute...with an absolutely lifeless performance against a Nebraska Cornhuskers team determined to give them every opportunity to get back in the game.

At 2-4 with an 0-3 conference record, division title hopes were long gone and a bowl game seemed out of reach. The fated 5-7 record didn’t even seem achievable anymore.

The Waiting Is Over

Mike Locksley’s Maryland Terrapins awaited the Illini the following week. So far, there were three extra-devastating losses:

  • to our longtime rivals in ineptitude, coached by a guy whose hire, contemporary to Bielema’s, drew more praise
  • in a trophy game to our former defensive coordinator who had spent the offseason talking mad shit about how he basically owns all of Bielema’s success at Illinois
  • at home in the game immediately following the passing of a program icon.

Surely this team would follow it up by losing to former Illini offensive coordinator Locksley, whose 2008 offense saw Juice Williams put up a huge ratio of yards to points en route to a disappointing 5-7 record.

However, something awakened and they put together a solid performance on the road, culminating in another game-winning field goal. Perhaps they could salvage a bowl berth yet! Wisconsin awaited on Homecoming, and they were without star quarterback Tanner Mordecai as they tried to recover from a loss to Iowa.

Eventual Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Johnny Newton terrorized the Badgers all day as Illinois cruised to a 21-7 lead. With ten minutes to go in the game, however, Newton was ejected for the kind of targeting penalty that makes you wonder how it’s possible to play football with this rule. Completely demoralized, the Illini gave up two touchdowns in the last five minutes to lose to Wisconsin during Homecoming for the 5th time in 6 attempts since 2015. Illinois was well on their way to a .500 record until ten minutes of NBA JAM-style rubberbanding, where if you try too hard to defy fate and open up a big lead on the CPU they go on an unstoppable scoring run, struck them down.

This Is It

I didn’t watch much of Illinois’ next game at Minnesota. For one, they were 3-5. For another, it was the day after the funeral and I had a lot on my mind. I actually forgot it was happening until I absent-mindedly checked my phone to discover that Minnesota had taken a late lead. Though I thought “at least we won’t go 5-7,” I couldn’t help but boot up the game on my phone just in time to see backup quarterback John Paddock go 3 for 3 on a heroic drive to win the game on a long bomb to program hero Isaiah Williams.

By this point in the season, Kaden Feagin had really come into his own as a powerful runner. It was initially unclear what role the linebacker-sized freshman would play, but his favored position was in the offensive backfield and he averaged 5.3 yards per touch in his first season. The bruising back proved an effective complement to Reggie Love and provided sorely-needed backfield depth with Josh McCray’s season-ending injury.

There would be more heroics the following week at home at the end of a wild game against Indiana where neither team could play defense. Bielema had elevated Aaron Henry to defensive coordinator instead of the perceived DC-in-waiting Kevin Kane. Henry’s defense gave up over 29 points per game despite having the B1G Defensive Player of the Year at DT. You can’t sustain a winning program if you can’t replace assistants that get hired away with coaches of a similar caliber, but I digress. Paddock threw for over 500 yards, finding Williams in overtime for another game-winner.

Isaiah Williams first came to Illinois as a top-100 player despite offers from Ohio State and Oklahoma because Lovie Smith said they would give him reps at quarterback. The St. Louis product did indeed get some tick in Rod Smith’s spread-based offense, but when Bret Bielema took over, Williams would be converted to receiver. Although he would have been in high demand elsewhere, Williams stayed at Illinois and eventually became part of the exclusive Two Bowl Game Club, which is an increasingly rare distinction. He’s beloved by the team and the fans, and he was so good that he became the only Big Ten West offensive skill player to earn all-conference honors in 2023.

You’ll Go No Further

The 5-5 Fighting Illini headed to Iowa not just to defy fate by clinching a bowl game, but to possibly secure their first division title in their last-ever chance to do it. They had stumbled early and often, but with some help and four straight wins to close the year, they could finally win the Big Ten West. In the swan song of the Old School Football division, the school of Red Grange still had a chance to raise their banner and claim it as theirs. Unfortunately, they’d have to do it without Kaden Feagin, as his season ended against Indiana.

During the 3 to 4 week period I spent as an expectant father around this time, I thought a lot about how I had been blessed with an opportunity to start a new chapter as another closed. My loss would blossom into something beautiful, and I could prepare to live my father’s legacy in the wake of losing him. Things will never be the same, but they don’t necessarily have to be worse!

By the time the Iowa game kicked off, this phase of my life was over. As it turns out, it all meant nothing. I had much taken from me, but in return I was given what turned out to be absolutely nothing. Like a lifelong season ticket holder in a sea of empty East Main bleachers facing the biting November winds alone, I wondered what the point was in all of this. Is this all there is? Is this as good as it gets? Why continue to show up?

Although the Illini put up 280 yards on a stingy Iowa defense and led at halftime, they missed several opportunities to continue working the game clock and get into scoring position. At the Iowa 11, Paddock tried a hesitation fake instead of continuing to run and gaining the first down. Illinois was forced to kick a field goal. Clinging to a 13-9 lead with five minutes remaining, Illinois got a stop on 3rd and 5 only to be called for a holding penalty I never saw adequately explained. On Iowa’s ensuing first down, everyone watching the game knew they’d run between the tackles...except for the Illini defense. Kaleb Johnson went untouched for a 36 yard touchdown.

Imagine getting caught out of position by the 2023 Iowa offense.

Iowa got the extra point blocked just to be silly, but Illinois could not answer and the margin of victory proved to be the safety the Fighting Illini gave up on their first drive of the game.

I’ve never believed college football games are scripted. I still don’t believe most of them are, but Illinois raised some questions for me in the second half of the season.

Illinois had one more opportunity to secure a bowl: a home date with Northwestern, a team they’d beaten twice in a row in humiliating fashion. The Wildcats had fired their longtime head coach in the offseason over a scandal, promoted a new DC to head coach and then gone on to have what would be Illinois’ best season between 2007 and 2022. I was apprehensive.

I was right to be! Much-maligned offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian torched Aaron Henry’s defense early en route to a 14-3 lead, but a rally would come led by a Miles Scott pick-six. Illinois trailed 21-20 at halftime because the lockdown defense of 2022 was now a distant memory.

Early in the fourth quarter, Illinois took a 31-28 lead and forced a three-and-out. I will digress to mention that a 6-6 Illinois would be an overwhelming favorite for the QuickLane Bowl in Detroit. In years past I would be unable to make it because I’ve never missed a Christmas in Chicagoland with my parents, but we decided to do Christmas in my neck of the woods. This would have meant that I could finally go to an Illini bowl game. The schedule and travel hadn’t worked out when I was in school, and then I only got three opportunities after graduating in 2012. One was in Dallas at noon the day after Christmas. Another I couldn’t do because it was in Santa Clara and I was still paying off some of a wedding. The third in Tampa I booked everything for, but stayed home for COVID quarantine reasons. As Northwestern lined up to punt, I considered starting to make plans for my long-awaited bowl game.

I never got the chance, because Isaiah Williams fumbled at the Illini 18. Northwestern took the short field and scored a touchdown, then scored immediately on the kickoff after Illinois mishandled that as well.

The bane of my existence since time immemorial, the Inevitable Muffed Punt had come for the Illini at the worst possible time. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if it hadn’t brought a friend with it. It was beyond clear by this point that 5-7 was written in the stars and that it was beyond the power of mere mortals to change it.

The Illini nevertheless raged against the dying of the light as Casey Washington ripped off a 73 yard gain en route to a short touchdown for Paddock. A failed two-point conversion left the margin at 5, and Henry’s much-maligned defense came up with an interception on the third play of Northwestern’s next drive. Paddock, the hero who had pulled out two season-saving wins in a row, threw an interception to the Illinois 26 for the third Illini turnover of the fourth quarter.

They fought to the bitter end, holding the Wildcats to a field goal. Washington then took a medium-range pass the entire 80-yard distance to the end zone in one of the most heroic plays I’ve ever seen in an Illinois game, but the two-point conversion and onside kick came up short. The final score was 45-43 Nern.

Illinois turned the ball over three times in the fourth quarter and still only got outscored 20-17. It was a hell of an effort to try to escape gravity, but the back-to-back special teams fumbles genuinely made me question if I was living in a simulation. This game was basically written with old “lol illinois football” tropes:

  • Inevitable muffed punt return
  • Illinois with five wins in November can’t go bowling
  • Players that become heroes either tear an ACL or commit game-losing mistakes
  • Illinois has no idea what’s going on with the wind in their own stadium
  • Replacing a coordinator with a guy who’s way worse, and uh-oh maybe that first coordinator was the only reason you were ever good!
  • The thing our head coach is known for (offensive line) is an area of weakness for the team
  • Illinois has a winning season, immediately goes 5-7.

Aftermath

The first subheading that’s not a line from This Is it, a song Kenny Loggins wrote about his father’s battle with cancer. Some battles against fate are more serious than others.

I don’t think I’ve ever been that upset after an Illinois loss. The semifinals were the only bowl games that I watched. It’s not just that they fulfilled the 5-7 prophecy to prove that this coach is not the one to break the cycle, it’s the Rube Goldberg device they used to engineer that outcome. Knowing it would happen did nothing to blunt the effects of actually living through it.

I could look at this from a football perspective and say that next year has to be make or break. After Illinois had the third most blown blocks on rushing plays in FBS football (21% of designed runs featured a blown blocking assignment!), the offensive line simply HAS to be good in Bret Bielema’s fourth season. If it isn’t, what’s the point in having Bret Bielema, The Manball Guy as your head coach? Isn’t that his whole calling card? The offensive line needs to produce. It just has to. There’s talent in the RB room, although graduate student Reggie Love is joining fired linebackers coach Andy Buh in West Lafayette as Ryan Walters continues to build a program whose sole purpose is to defeat Illinois.

Bielema’s staff has built a pipeline with in-state recruits and has used NIL to keep players like Johnny Newton around for extra years, and it certainly looks like they’re on their way to building a very good college football program circa 2013. What remains to be seen is if this “slowly build the foundation” approach can still work in 2024 and beyond. Other schools don’t have to wait for the recruiting to really get cooking, but we do because we’re Illinois. Maybe this will yield better results than before, but the competition is getting tougher at a faster rate than the program is getting better (if it even is!).

Ron Turner’s post-2001 Illini failed because he never found the successor to Kurt Kittner at quarterback and recruiting increasingly got away from him. This is the widely accepted narrative among Illini football historians, which is why the 2007 team showed such promise in Ron Zook’s third season. The irony of this is that the 9-win 2007 team was led by upperclassmen who had been recruited by Turner in his waning years, including Rashard Mendenhall and J Leman. By the time a full Zook roster took the field, the results were uninspiring and maddeningly inconsistent. Things unraveled over the six-game losing streak that ended the Zook era, but the immediate follow-up to 2007 showed worrying signs: even with the same coordinators, the team couldn’t run the same schemes as effectively as the prior year’s team due to the loss of the previous coach’s recruits.

In other words, a new coaching staff got the most out of a previous regime’s recruits (complemented with their own recruits of course) by running schemes perfectly suited to their talents but couldn’t replicate that success with their own recruits.

Of the impact players the 2022 team lost, only Tommy DeVito was brought in by Bret Bielema’s staff. Chase Brown, Alex Palczewski, Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown and Quan Martin’s departure changed the entire identity of the program even though they were ostensibly running the same schemes. They simply weren’t able to execute them without Lovie’s players. This is a thing that seems to only happen at Illinois.

Which brings me back to my central point and the main thing I took away from this season.

Conclusion

I no longer believe it matters who plays for Illinois, who coaches them, what scheme they run, how they practice, how they recruit, or how they do anything. I no longer believe that Illinois has a losing program because of a failure to put talented leadership in place.

The 2023 season finally convinced me of what you’ve all known all along.

Illinois Football is a losing program because it just is.

In order to Be A Fan of Illinois Football, I have to accept that I’m never going to get to go to a bowl game. They’re certainly not making one in 2024, and the college football landscape is changing faster than Illinois’ fortunes will. Bowl games as we know them will be a thing of the past soon. ESPN talking heads are already floating the idea, and you know what that leads to. Real honest-to-God Big Ten level football at the University of Illinois is simply not possible. If we had brought in Lance Leipold, we would have still gone 5-7 after a breakout season and had all kinds of questions in the aftermath.

There’s no point in following recruiting or any of the other teams in the conference. It doesn’t matter how good or bad the competition is; Illinois will lose more games than they win. Ten years of the Big Ten West with no titles to show for it proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

In this moment, I can certainly identify with Illinois Football: I feel like I’m never going to be complete, and I’m struggling to accept a state of permanent loss.

And now, at long last, there’s nothing more I can say about Illinois Fighting Illini Football.