Bret Bielema’s first season as Illinois football coach ended in a strange place when it came to defining success.
Bielema certainly can understand and appreciate why some Illini supporters offered him congratulations for the team’s accomplishments. After all, Illinois toppled two nationally ranked programs on the road for the first time in 20 years, gritting out an NCAA record nine-overtime 20-18 victory against No. 7 Penn State and then stifling No. 20 Minnesota defensively with six sacks and two interceptions in a 14-6 win. The Illini then closed the season by hammering in-state foe Northwestern 47-14 to snap a six-game losing streak in the series.
Yet Illinois finished 5-7 overall and did not participate in a bowl game. The Illini suffered a pair of humbling losses to Virginia and Wisconsin, a 10-point setback to Iowa and four single-digit defeats — to UTSA, Maryland, Purdue and Rutgers — that Bielema looks back on by pointing out how close his team was to winning.
So yeah, Illinois made strides a year after a forgettable 2-6 campaign led to a coaching change. But that doesn’t mean Bielema is anywhere close to satisfied with where things stand.
“There’s always going to be a huge discrepancy between what people view as progress from the outside world and then the building itself that we work in every day,” Bielema said. “From the outside world, I know there were a lot of people that were happy. They thought we made a step in the right direction beating two ranked teams on the road. But for me, I didn’t come here to win five games.”
Bielema recognizes how much work remains to make Illinois a consistent bowl game participant — the Illini have reached just two bowl games in the last 10 seasons — and climb the Big Ten West mountain to compete for championships. That’s why he made a drastic offseason change by moving on from offensive coordinator Tony Peterson after Illinois ranked tied for 115th nationally in points per game (20.2) and 112th in total offense (329.8 yards per game).
The goal, Bielema said, was to bring more modernization to the offense and implement the acronym AFAP — as fast as possible — to the tempo while still maintaining the principles of a pro-style offense. Bielema is optimistic that the new offense under former UTSA offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. will stress defenses up the middle, on the edges and vertically in the passing game.
As Bielema enters Year 2, he acknowledges that his program has to build on everything.
“We’re knocking on the door,” Bielema said. “We’re not in there yet, but we’re making a lot of progress, and I like the way our guys are building.”