Big Game Hunting: With a heavy heart, Illinois’ Bielema goes for coaching win No. 2 at Michigan

The death of Bret Bielema’s mother, Marilyn, hangs a cloud over the Illini’s attempt to score an upset that would greatly aid their cause in the Big Ten West.

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Illinois v Wisconsin

Illinois coach Bret Bielema has had a difficult week.

Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

No single game marks the apex of Bret Bielema’s career, but an early one that really mattered was Wisconsin’s 48-28 victory at Michigan in 2010. The brutishly physical Badgers — Rose Bowl-bound — had it rolling to such an extent that running backs Montee Ball and James White carried the ball a combined 52 times for 354 yards and six touchdowns against the powerless Wolverines. It was a soaring high and remains Bielema’s only victory at the Big House as a coach.

In the aftermath, Bielema teared up while connecting the moment to his sister Betsy, who had died at 27 in a tragic accident in 1990. A defensive lineman at Iowa all those years ago, Bielema had learned of her death while celebrating a rare victory for the Hawkeyes in Ann Arbor.

This week, he’s grieving again. On Thursday — two days before Illinois (+18) at No. 3 Michigan (11 a.m., Ch. 7, 890-AM) — the Illini coach received the news that his mother, Marilyn, had died. It hangs a cloud over the Illini’s attempt to score an upset that would aid their chances to break clear of a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten West.

Do the 7-3 Illini have a shot against 10-0 Michigan, which is off to its best start since 2006 and on a 14-game winning streak at home? Well, it’s all relative. Illini star Chase Brown was playing for Western Michigan in 2018 when he went to the Big House and lost 49-3. Backup quarterback Art Sitkowski started there for Rutgers in 2019 and fell just barely short at 52-0. Those teams had no shot. There is much less of a gap between the Illini and the mighty Maize and Blue.

Brown and Sitkowski are the only Illini who have played before the largest football crowd (Michigan Stadium capacity: 107,000-plus) on the planet.

‘‘If you love football,’’ Bielema told his team at the start of the week, ‘‘you’re going to love Saturday.’’

Something to look for right out of the gate is how the Illini’s excellent defense fares on Michigan’s first possession. With J.J. McCarthy at quarterback, the Wolverines have scored on eight of nine opening drives. Six of those drives have ended in touchdowns, four of them scored by running back Blake Corum, a potential Heisman Trophy finalist. Force a punt or a turnover instead of falling behind, and maybe — just maybe — the Illini will have something brewing.

Also, try not to get wiped off the field after halftime. The Wolverines have run up a gob-smacking 117-3 score in their last five second halves.

This is one tall task for Bielema’s squad, which I expect to play well. But it’s Michigan, 27-14.

Staying in the West, Northwestern (+19) at Purdue (11 a.m., FS1, 720-AM) is vital for the Boilermakers — the only team that holds a tiebreaker edge against Illinois — and Iowa (+3) at Minnesota (3 p.m., Fox-32) is huge for both teams, with the Hawkeyes and the Gophers right there in the bottleneck with the Boilers and the Illini.

It’s hard to see Northwestern — loser of nine in a row — threatening Purdue or anybody else right now, but the Wildcats will run the ball a little bit and ugly up the game just enough to cover. Boilers, 26-9.

Iowa v Minnesota

All hail Floyd of Rosedale.

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

And what about Iowa-Minnesota? The Floyd of Rosedale rivalry trophy never has been more fitting, considering these offenses are as dynamic and alluring as a bronze pig. But Iowa has won seven in a row and 17 of the last 21 head-to-head and — whoa — hasn’t dropped a game to any opponent in November since 2019. Hawkeyes, 13-10.


No. 4 TCU (-2½) at Baylor (11 a.m., Fox-32): I have a disturbing feeling this is where the carnival ride ends for TCU but can’t bring myself to pick against the Horned Frogs, who have answered every challenge all season and are 8-1 against the spread. Frogs, 27-20.

Boston College (+21) at No. 18 Notre Dame (1:30 p.m., Ch. 5, Peacock, 780-AM): After not bothering to show up for the second half last Saturday against Navy, the Irish are focusing on four quarters of quality football. The Eagles are coming off their best performance, a surprising victory at N.C. State, and the weather should limit the fireworks somewhat. Irish, 31-14.

No. 1 Georgia (-22½) at Kentucky (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): No chance Kentucky wins this game, but it has lost four in a row to Georgia by fewer than 22 and dang sure better be motivated by the shameful sting of a loss to Vanderbilt last time out. Dogs win, Cats cover.

Arizona v UCLA

Zach Charbonnet is the Pac-12’s top back.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

No. 7 USC (-2½) at No. 16 UCLA (7 p.m., Fox-32): These teams are pretty much equals, but one key difference is UCLA has the Pac-12’s best rusher in Zach Charbonnet, while USC’s leading rusher is out. The Victory Bell series is 5-5 in the last 10 renditions, with the Bruins holding a slight 33.8-32.1 scoring edge on average. Bruins by 1.7.

No. 10 Utah (-2) at No. 12 Oregon (9:30 p.m., ESPN): Remember the misery this matchup caused the Ducks last season? They lost by 31 in Salt Lake City in late November, then lost by 28 to the Utes two weeks later in the Pac-12 title game. Revenge by a kick.

My favorite favorite: No. 6 LSU (-14½) vs. UAB (8 p.m., ESPN2): It’s Cupcake Week in the SEC, and this is a classic trap game. But the Tigers keep improving by leaps and bounds defensively, and their offense could use a good night after a poor showing at Arkansas. They pour it on late.

My favorite underdog: Nebraska (+10) vs. Wisconsin (11 a.m., ESPN): QB Casey Thompson returns from injury for the Huskers to keep this one close. There’s only one fitting way for the Huskers to go out on Senior Day — with a soul-sucking defeat.

Last week: 6-3 straight up, 5-4 against the spread.

Season to date: 57-37 straight up, 46-48 against the spread.

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