CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Bret Bielema got his first crack at his old team, but it didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to.
Wisconsin invaded Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon and embarrassed Illinois 24-0 in front of a Homecoming crowd of 40,168. It was the first time since November of 2018 that the Fighting Illini got shutout at home.
Now Bielema has to pick up the pieces and go back to the drawing board after his teams’ lackluster performance. Illinois couldn’t get anything going offensively, and the unit finished with just 93 total yards, which was a season-low. Not to mention Illinois only generated nine first downs the entire game.
Unlike last week, when the Fighting Illini rushed for 336 yards, they were held to a mere 26 on the ground. Wisconsin (2-3) controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball from the start.
Bielema was pleased with the gameday atmosphere, especially the fact that the student section was sold out. He thought it was the best environment the venue has had all season. However, the crowd was kept at bay throughout the contest because Illinois couldn’t generate any momentum. By the end of the third quarter, many fans had already headed for the exits.
“I knew they (Wisconsin) were a good defense, I get it, I knew it would be tough-sledding getting the running game going,” Bielema said. “We just aren’t at a point to execute in the throwing game that gives you a chance.”
Bielema played both Brandon Peters and Artur Sitkowski at quarterback. Peters wound up getting injured due to poor execution on blocking assignments by the offensive line and didn’t return. Sitkowski played the rest of the game, but he never got into a rhythm.
The Badgers’ defense smelled blood in the water after they completely shut down the Fighting Illini’s rushing attack. In return it forced the offense to throw the ball more often than Bielema would’ve liked. Sitkowski struggled mightily in the pocket. He only completed eight of his 27 passes for 55 yards. The Fighting Illini became one-dimensional and couldn’t execute. Illinois (2-5) had to play from behind, which forced Bielema out of his original game plan.
Everything was a domino effect for the offense the rest of the way.
“We weren’t protecting the quarterback, we got people under duress obviously,” he said. “I think it all starts with our protection before we can even get to the point of schematics.”
Bielema thought his defense played solid in the first half, but came out flat in the third quarter and allowed two touchdowns. The Badgers’ offense finished with two 100-yard rushers for the first time this season. Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen combined for 39 carries, 276 yards on the ground, two touchdowns and averaged over seven yards per carry.
Illinois’ defense couldn’t get off the field on third downs, and allowed Wisconsin’s offense to march down the field with long drives that took a chunk of time off the clock. By the fourth quarter, the unit looked fatigued and the Badgers were able to dictate what they wanted to do. The Badgers wound up finishing with 491 yards of total offense, including 391 on the ground.
The positive aspect for Bielema and the Fighting Illini, is the team will be getting a much-needed bye-week to evaluate every position. There’s a lot of things Bielema wants to clean up and his players should be expecting an intense week of workouts once they resume practice.
There’s still five games left on the slate. Regardless, the Fighting Illini would have to win them all if they plan on becoming bowl eligible. Bielema just wants his players to learn from this loss and not feel sorry for themselves. After all, success hardly ever happens overnight.
“Unfortunately this is another step in the process, it’s very painful to go through, but the worst thing we could do is leave it behind like it never happened.”