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Illinois Coach Bret Bielema Talks Indiana Matchup

Illinois defeated Wyoming 38-6 in Week 0, and now the Illini will begin Big Ten play on the road at Indiana on Friday night. Here's what coach Bret Bielema said about the Hoosiers.

Indiana football begins its season on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET at Memorial Stadium against an Illinois team coming off a 38-6 win over Wyoming in Week 0. 

Illinois coach Bret Bielema spoke to the media on Monday about the upcoming matchup with Indiana, injury updates and more. 

In Bielema's opening statement, he discussed the unique dynamic of playing an Indiana team that has film on the Illini, but didn't play last week. 

“For everybody else it’s Week 1, it’s our Week 2," Bielema said. "Little bit unique position going into Indiana. They got a chance to watch us on Saturday. They’ve had some turnover on the staff. The thing I appreciate about [Indiana coach Tom Allen] is he’s done it his way and that’s why he’s had success. I know they’ve got a tremendous chip on their shoulder to do some good things this year. We’re going to go into a hostile environment. I don’t know what the crowd is going to be at but we’re going to prepare for it to be loud and crowded. We’ll put in good diligence of a work week. We came out of [Wyoming] I think fairly healthy. We have two guys we’re still waiting on. We have guys who will get information further today from testing."

Illinois' starting running back Chase Brown posted 19 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns, as well as a receiving touchdown against Wyoming, but his backup Josh McCray suffered a knee injury in the win. Bielema provided an injury update on his team on Monday.

 “Josh McCray, I know he won’t be with us this week," Bielema said. "I just don’t know the long-term prognosis to where he’s at. Shawn Miller has an appointment today at 5 p.m. that we should gather some more information. Those two guys, really, the only two who will be out prolonged in the fact they won’t be with us this week. Everybody else got through it pretty clean. Isaiah [Williams] was just a cramping issue. He was clear to play to come back in, we just didn’t want to do it at that point. Really, that’s it."

Indiana coach Tom Allen and first-year coordinators Walt Bell and Chad Wilt have kept starting personnel and scheme quiet this offseason in hopes that Illinois enters the game not knowing exactly what to expect. Bielema recognized this on Monday, saying the Illini will need to able to adjust during the game. 

“Indiana is kind of another step with what Wyoming was," Bielema said. "They have had a lot of turnover on the offensive, defensive and special teams units. A lot of new players coming out of the portal world. The added element of Wyoming was we kind of knew who their coordinators were and what they were going to do, but offensively and defensively — special teams is a little bit of a constant at Indiana — two new coordinators. Don’t know exactly what that is going to be, so a lot of Friday is going to be about the ability to be aware and adjust during the course of the game and handle the moments. We started [Sunday] night. We changed our Sunday routine up to kind of minimize the amount of transition time. Even though it’s a short week, by theory, because we’re playing on Friday, it hadn’t shortened our preparation. We had a couple days of spring preparation. We had three days of fall preparation on Indiana. We’re actually walking into Tuesday tomorrow at practice ahead of where we would be in a big way, by multiple days, in our preparation. Hopefully that’s going to play dividends.”

Bielema has tried to simulate the Indiana and offense and defense during practice, but admittedly, much of it has been an educated guess.

"Even last spring I would say, ‘Hey, we’re doing inside versus Indiana here. This is Indiana’s projected defense. This is Indiana’s projected offense,’" Bielema said. "We were about 14 days out from game day and we did a two-day window of Indiana and they were very clear. We go into meetings and show them film on that. Again, no one knows what Indiana is going to do. It’s an educated guess on their coordinators and their past experiences. Just following them through social media, Coach Allen is a very high energy, motivated guy. You can hear the phrases they’ve been told and the way they’re going to play. Tremendous respect. We recruit against them quite a bit. They’re in Florida as well. We pop up against Indiana in recruiting battles quite a bit.”

On the flip side, Bielema knows just how much young players can improve from game one to game two, which could be an advantage for the Illini.

“Two different price tags. The first is there is no doubt in my mind — I learned this as an assistant coach working with young players — most young players have the biggest gain of the entire year from game one to game two, just within a week," Bielema said. "They see things for the first time. They understand the pace of play. Gabe Jacas, I promise you, he did a really nice job but that tempo was coming at him. Well, this week it’s an up-tempo team. Wyoming was huddling. Now he’s got to get ready for that moment. Matt (Bailey) came in and did some stuff. That first INT bounced off his hands. I promise you the next one he probably catches it. Little things along that that guys make big strides. For the value Indiana has on us, that’s a question for them, obviously. Anything we put out there on film is something they can gain on. I made this point emphatically to our coches yesterday, just like we’re preparing a scouting report on Indiana, they’re making one on us. Any tip, any tell, any significant thing we show them on film we can use that as an advantage or disadvantage to our preparation. The difference is they’ve got to make that call. It’s a tremendous challenge to our coaches and one I think we’ll be ready for.”

Illinois is hoping to accomplish something it failed to do in year one under Bielema: win two games in a row. After a 1-4 start to the season, the Illini went 4-3 in the back half of their schedule with conference wins at Penn State, Minnesota and at home against Northwestern. 

“Last season we followed [a Week 0 win over Nebraska] up with a loss. I’m not going to ignore the obvious. Last year we couldn’t put two back-to-back weeks together to win games," Bielema said. "That’s been a tremendous challenge and calling for us since we got together. To play on the road in a Big Ten environment on a Friday night is everything I think you could dial up as a competitor. I’m excited for that growth. I do like Week Zero games. Obviously the AD gets to make the final call but I would love to play a Week Zero game as much as we can because of also having the element of two bye weeks. I think the value of being fresh in today’s world of college football — I know this is only our second year but as we continue to develop our roster, until we’re a little bit more complete in our depth, I think the health of our roster is a little more important than Xs and Os.”

  • TIGHT END POSITION PREVIEW: With the loss of Peyton Hendershot and Matt Bjorson, Indiana will look to AJ Barner to step up as the leader of the tight ends room, coached by Kevin Wright. CLICK HERE
  • OFFENSIVE LINE POSITION PREVIEW: Starters Caleb Jones and Dylan Powell are gone, but the offensive line personnel is largely the same from 2021. Led by Matthew Bedford, Luke Haggard and Mike Katic, Indiana is hoping internal development under coach Darren Hiller leads to better protection in 2022. CLICK HERE
  • WIDER RECEIVER POSITION PREVIEW: Indiana lost its top two receivers from 2021 – Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall – and coach Grant Heard left for UCF. D.J. Matthews returns to Indiana after tearing his ACL in week four, Donaven McCulley is making the switch from quarterback to receiver, and transfers Cam Camper and Emery Simmons have stood out in fall camp. CLICK HERE