After too many close losses in 2022, Illini have spent the offseason in finishing school

Being better at that — finishing — has been on Illinois coach Bret Bielema’s mind all offseason. If he has had one thing driving himself and one prevailing message to his staff and players, that’s it.

SHARE After too many close losses in 2022, Illini have spent the offseason in finishing school
Isaiah Williams of Illinois nears the end zone at Michigan in 2022. The Illini led 17-10 in the fourth quarter before losing 19-17.

Isaiah Williams of Illinois nears the end zone at Michigan in 2022. The Illini led 17-10 in the fourth quarter before losing 19-17.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

On the first weekend after National Signing Day in February, a months-long, non-stop grind finally over — for a minute, anyway — Illinois football coach Bret Bielema flew with his wife and daughters to Florida for a celebration.

Because that’s what it was — a celebration of life — as they rented a boat and spread the ashes of Bielema’s father-in-law, who died the day before last Thanksgiving, at sea.

It sure felt like the right way — the perfect way — to finish things.

Being better at that — finishing — has been on Bielema’s mind all offseason. If he has had one thing driving himself and one prevailing message to his Illini staff and players, that’s it.

The Illini won eight games in a 2022 season of breakthroughs, but their four regular-season losses each came by eight or fewer points, otherwise known as one dang score. None of those losses was more frustrating than the first one, a 23-20 bag of missed opportunities at Indiana. And none stung more than the last one, a 19-17 slugfest at Michigan that the Illini — still with a chance to make the Big Ten championship game — led 17-10 going into the fourth quarter.

A season in which the Illini started 7-1 and ended 8-5 after a ReliaQuest Bowl loss to Mississippi State was a tale of a talented, vastly improved team that just didn’t know how to, well, you know what the next word is. Finish, of course.

“Last year showed the team that we can win,” Bielema said, “but then there was a stretch when we had to learn about ourselves. I believe we’ve got to figure out how to keep our edge, because we had an edge when we [beat four straight Big Ten West opponents to get to] 7-1.”

Repeatedly during the offseason, players were matched one-on-one in activities — pushing power sleds laden with hundreds of pounds of weights, for example — that very much were presented to them as competitions. Every competition was videoed and eventually played for the team. Nobody beat defensive lineman Johnny Newton or receiver Isaiah Williams at anything, which will surprise approximately 0% of fans who have watched those two stars play, but no one wanted to be the guy who didn’t drive that sled one second faster or one foot farther.

“Culturally,” Bielema said, “when you get players who know how to win games but, more importantly, don’t want to lose, that’s when you can take a step forward.”

A year ago, Illinois’ 13th spring practice was the one out of the allotted 15 that stuck in Bielema’s craw. It just didn’t go well — no juice, no nothing — so Bielema planned one this spring cycle devoted entirely to fourth-quarter and end-of-game scenarios. It was a big hit.

It would have been nice to see that play out in the spring game, which was scheduled for prime time Thursday on the Big Ten Network. Instead, due to expected weather conditions around Memorial Stadium, an announcement came Wednesday afternoon that the game had been postponed until Friday at 7 p.m. and would no longer be televised.

Still, the show goes on. There will be football — and some pretty high expectations — under the lights.

“As a head coach, I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about what we have potentially,” Bielema said. “We’ve got to put it together, but we have a lot of the key ingredients you need to be successful.”

Newton and Keith Randolph should be among the most dangerous defensive line one-two punches in the country. Left tackle Julian Pearl and guard Isaiah Adams are the best duo Illinois has had on the offensive line in a long time. The Illini have 10 players back who were All-Big Ten last season, more than any other team in the West.

Will the defense look as wicked as it did last year with former coordinator Ryan Walters now the head coach at Purdue and Aaron Henry in Walters’ old role?

Will quarterback Luke Altmyer, a transfer from Ole Miss who was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, dig his hooks into the starting job? He’ll get the first snaps in the spring game, though Bielema will let the quarterback competition — as much as it truly exists — spill into training camp. Altmyer has three seasons of eligibility remaining. If he works out, it might be the biggest victory of the Bielema regime.

At the very least, Altmyer gets the concept of a narrative.

“I can see the fruits and details of how this program wants to finish,” the Mississippi native said. “If we can start the way they did last year and then finish that way, too, I think everybody will be very happy.”

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