With Nebraska looming, Bret Bielema hopes to start at Illinois like he finished at Wisconsin

OK, so scoring 70 against the Huskers — as Wisconsin did in the 2012 Big Ten title game — isn’t going to happen. But the Illini might surprise some people.

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Bielema gets his “Ball Game” on.

Brett Moore | Illinois Athletics

Throughout the week leading into the 2012 Big Ten championship game, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema had a fine feeling in his gut. Nebraska had what it had — not a bad team at all — but the Badgers were stacked. Even though his team had blown a 17-point second-half lead at Nebraska in a maddening September defeat, Bielema thought about all the pieces he had to play with, particularly in the running game, and thought: This is going to be very good.

In Indianapolis, the tables turned on the Huskers almost obscenely. Riding an incomparable trio of running backs — Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon — the Badgers piled up 539 yards on the ground alone, steamrolled to a 42-10 lead at the half and won 70-31.

“I remember at halftime I thought it was almost too lopsided, that it was going to work against us,” said Bielema, clad in a Cubs jersey — with his name and the No. 91, his digits as a player at Iowa, on the back — Sunday in the press box at Wrigley Field, where he led the seventh-inning stretch. “But our guys kept putting our foot down.”

It was Bielema’s last game at Wisconsin before he left for an ill-fated turn at Arkansas. Nine years later — and four years since his last season as a college coach — Bielema is counting down the days until his Illinois debut on Aug. 28 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. The opponent: Nebraska.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I really am. It’s just a very exciting time.”

Bielema’s confidence in the Illini will need some time to develop. Training camp opens Sunday at a school that hasn’t seen a winning season since 2011. Even though they won 41-23 at Nebraska in 2020 — probably their best performance of the Lovie Smith era — the Illini are 8-point underdogs in the opener.

“The thing you don’t know is the unforeseen,” Bielema said. “A turnover, a caused fumble, something that changes the momentum of the game. That’s what you prepare for and try to be ready for. But I have a pretty good feeling [that] we’re going to play well.”

The Illini were picked to bring up the rear in seventh place in the West division in Cleveland.com’s annual media poll — I picked them fifth — but they do have a not-so-secret weapon, and that’s being the oldest team in any of the Power Five conferences. They have 22 “super seniors,” the moniker given to players who returned from a pandemic season for an extra year of eligibility, and 18 other traditional seniors. The “super” list includes quarterback Brandon Peters and the team’s top three offensive linemen, center Doug Kramer and tackles Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe.

Illinois v Nebraska

Doug Kramer at Nebraska.

Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Old dudes just want to win.

“Veteran players make veteran decisions,” Bielema said. “Obviously, they haven’t won a lot of games, right? That’s why there was transition [from Smith]. But they’ve been through a lot of experiences, been through a lot of ups and downs. I think they’re hungry and motivated to have success. That’s a very fun environment.”

Bielema was a bit taken aback by what he saw during spring practices. Frankly, he expected less in the talent department.

“Lovie left a lot of really good players,” he said.

Now, it’s about getting ready to pull off some surprises. The 2012 Badgers were at the height of their powers. The 2021 Illini will have to follow the old dudes and sneak up on some people.

JUST SAYIN’

“Root, root, root for the Cubbies …”

Anybody can sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but did Bielema really mean it? Yes. The Prophetstown, Ill., native grew up a Cubs fan. His father, Arnie Bielema, played baseball at Illinois, though not for long.

“Thankfully, I guess, he left Illinois because he was in love with a young woman by the name of Marilyn, who became my mom,” Bielema said. “So I’m glad he left. Otherwise, I might not be here.”

One would imagine not.

• In case you were wondering about Northwestern: The Wildcats were picked third in the West, behind Wisconsin and Iowa, in the aforementioned media poll. And that’s exactly how my top three looked. Look, at least wait until Pat Fitzgerald and company make it back to Indy before you yell at me.

JPN: United States v France Men’s Basketball - Olympics: Day 2

Popovich and players during a loss to France.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

• Just a thought: Maybe USA Basketball should put a coach in charge of the men’s team who doesn’t have a full-time gig in college or the NBA.

It’s called taking it seriously, folks. Unless, that is, everybody is OK with a bunch of NBA stars going out there with next to no plan and — win or lose — putting on a barely watchable show.

It sure doesn’t appear that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is spending many sleepless nights trying to get this Olympic thing all the way right. The snoozy performance by his team in an 83-76 opening loss to France wasn’t the end of the world — some players had just arrived in Tokyo, after all — but this isn’t slalom canoeing we’re talking about. Or is it canoe slaloming?

“I think it’s just a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win,” Popovich said.

Hubris? Please.

Now go win gold. Chop-chop, Pop!

• A day before American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic team competition, The Wall Street Journal ran a story claiming the 4-8 marvel rises so high on her tumbling passes that she could — and try to stay with me here — dunk a basketball with her feet.

In case anyone was wondering if expectations of the best athlete in the world were a little outsized.

• The latest craze among college football coaches — especially in the South — is not publicly disclosing whether or not they’re vaccinated.

Guess what: They’re all vaccinated. They have too many millions of dollars to lose not to be.

Some of them just don’t have the courage to say it out loud. Which is preposterously stupid, but here we are.

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