Return of the Illinois Fighting Illini
It’s been a long time since Champaign could call itself a football town – 2011, to be specific. That’s how long it has been since the Fighting Illini were ranked.
Outside of a couple of exceptional seasons, the 21st century has been tough on the Fighting Illini. There are a few exceptional moments: the Sugar Bowl season under Ron Turner in 2001 and the Rose Bowl season under Ron Zook in 2007. Since the 2007 season, the Fighting Illini have only won more than seven games twice in the last 14 years.
Illinois’ dormant football reputation was desperate for revitalization. They may have found it in a former Big Ten coach who got fired from an SEC team.
Turning Around the History of the Program
Bret Bielema came to Champaign at the end of 2020 after getting fired from Arkansas. Given the cloud that COVID hung over all organized sports in 2020 + 2021, Fighting Illini fans realized that results would take time.
There was a bright light or two in Bielema’s first season – the Fighting Illini had road wins against ranked Penn State and Minnesota. Finishing off the season with a conclusive 47-14 win versus rival Northwestern, Fighting Illini fans were cautiously optimistic coming into the season.
Bielema’s effect on recruiting is noticeable too. The 2022 recruiting class was ranked 46th in the nation – the highest ranking the school has had in over a decade. The 2023 class could be even better.
The defense has been the calling card of the Fighting Illini so far. The Fighting Illini are the #1 scoring defense in the country and are 3rd in total defense, or total yards allowed per game.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters previously spent six years at Missouri but has sparked the unit to become a fearsome unit capable of making big plays. Turnovers have been a big part of the Fighting Illini’s play so far – they lead the Big Ten in takeaways and are 8th in the nation overall. Six different Fighting Illini players have recorded an interception. Five Illini players have recovered a fumble. It’s a hawkish bunch that likes to make big defensive plays that change the game.
Rest of Season Outlook
Sitting at 5-1 atop the Big Ten West right now, the Fighting Illini hold their destiny in their hands in getting a berth in Indianapolis. The last two weeks of the season will be tough to go 2-0 on – the Illini visit Michigan, then close against rival Northwestern on their home field in Evanston.
The Illini’s defense-first style will get them through the rest of their schedule without too many unforced errors; illini fans will be jumping on I-74 East and heading to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game this December.