Illini fans are counting on a repeat of what took place against the Wisconsin Badgers back in 2019 as the teams are set to face off in front of a crowd for the first time since the aforementioned year.
Nothing was supposed to be special when the teams clashed on October 19 of said year. The Badgers came in as one of the top teams in the conference and the expectation was that they would smash Illinois in what would be another Homecoming embarrassment. That’s how things worked out when they faced Purdue in 2018, with a 46-7 result spelling the mood around the grounds and community at large.
The Illinois sportsbooks couldn’t have cast a great outlook prior to the meet yet things hardly went as expected. The Illini appeared set to lose after they fell behind by 13 on the back of a five-yard touchdown run from Jonathan Taylor but they dug deep and managed to win the game via a 39-yard field goal from James McCourt.
Fans did not allow the ball to come down before rushing to the field to celebrate what was probably the most impressive win under Lovie Smith, who has since gone on to become an associate head coach for the Houston Texans.
The win was one of the most shocking of the season and you could well imagine how Illini supporters must be feeling now that Winsconsin is coming back for the Homecoming game this Saturday. As mentioned above, this will be the first one since 2019, given that the COVID-19 pandemic kept the last season away from fans.
There’s plenty of reason to be hopeful for this one and there are a few other factors that make this game an exciting prospect. The Badgers aren’t as good as they were in 2019 and it will also be the first time Bret Bielema, Illinois’ current head coach, will be facing Wisconsin. Bielema coached the badgers from 2005 to 2012 but insists that the past is behind him.
“I made a lot of great relationships (in Madison), you know, I could go on and on,” he said, per The Daily Illini. “There are just so many different things I can’t put a price tag on. I told our guys unequivocally on Sunday, even Saturday after the game, just as much as I talk to them all the time about their pasts, … all of that is behind me. None of that applies to any moment in any preparation mode this week whatsoever.”
There are other coaches on the Illini staff who either coached or played for the Badgers, or both, while Bielema was coaching at Wisconsin.
Defensive backs coach Aaron Henry, defensive line coach Terrance Jamison, linebackers coach Andy Buh, and associate head coach/outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane all have a history with Wisconsin. Henry earned All-Big Ten first-team defensive back honors and won two Big Ten titles under Bielema, also making the Rose Bowl in two straight seasons while playing for the Badgers. Jamison was also a defensive lineman under the current Illini coach but was unfortunate to have injuries end his career. He served as a coach for the Badgers too, having functioned as a student assistant, graduate assistant and defensive quality control coach there.
Buh, meanwhile, was a linebacker coach under Bielema in 2012 and was key to the team winning the Big Ten Championship in his only season in Wisconsin. Kane did not play for the Badgers either but was a graduate assistant and quality control coach in three years at Madison.
Offensive line coach Bart Miller coached as part of Bielema’s staff as well, working as a graduate assistant and then an offensive line coach.
There are plenty of ties to the Badgers where the coaching staff at Illinois is concerned and it’s one of the reasons there’s plenty of interest in the upcoming game. Bielema says the fact that he was a mainstay at Wisconsin for seven years will not influence his preparation.
“My preparation for any game is the exact same,” he said. “I’m not gonna do anything more or less; I’m just not wired that way, and that’s the way I teach our players and our coaches to go about it.”
The coach has also revealed that the gray ghost uniforms worn for homecoming will not adorn his players this weekend.
The Illini will go into Saturday’s game on a high after their 24-14 win over Charlotte last week, during which running back Chase Brown rushed for a career-high 257 yards. This was his first game back from injury.
Illinois is now 2-4, with Wisconsin 1-3 in the wake of a 38-17 loss to Michigan. It’s worth noting that they have played three top 25 teams in Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan.