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The return of Bret Bielema to the Big Ten has been one that has fascinated this particular Big Ten observer all offseason. The former Wisconsin head coach returned to the conference this year as the head coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini to give us all a glimpse at whether or not Bielema could still manufacture wins in the Big Ten the way he once did with the Badgers. Well, it’s only been one game, but he did just that on Saturday.
And not to say “I told you so,” but I did feel validated in my pregame predictions in this one. Perhaps it was too easy to go against Nebraska in this situation, but sometimes easy money is smart money too. (Just please pay no attention to my UConn prediction).
Illinois dropped Nebraska in a Week 0 Big Ten opener 30-22. The Illini rattled off 28 consecutive points to turn a 9-2 deficit into a decisive 30-9 advantage between the second and third quarters, although the Huskers managed to make things interesting late in the fourth quarter. The turning point of the game may have been a 41-yard fumble return fr a touchdown by Illinois’ Calvin Hart Jr. The defensive score came in the final minute of the first half to break a 9-9 tie.
The Illini defense had a good showing with five sacks of Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, who completed just 16 of his 32 pass attempts. Illinois also got a solid effort from backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski (a transfer from Rutgers) following a shoulder injury to starter Brandon Peters (a transfer from Michigan). Sitkowski completed 12 of 15 attempts with two touchdowns.
The win was a big one for Bielema as it gets his new era as a head coach of a program with nowhere to go but up off on the right track. There will likely be many more setbacks than celebrations for the Illini this season, but starting things off with a win is a pretty good way to get things started for Bielema.
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema, left, and Nebraska head coach Scott Frost, talk before the start of Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
But what about Nebraska? This is a bitter pill to swallow. Entering a season with questions of whether or not Nebraska may actually get back to a bowl game this season, starting off the year with a loss to Illinois is a terrible omen for things potentially to come. Getting to six wins for the NCAA win-minimum to go to a postseason bowl game was already going to be difficult enough this season, and that was with the expectation that Nebraska would win this matchup, where they were a touchdown favorite.
Scott Frost needed this win in a bad way. Nebraska will have a couple of games they should win the next two times out against Fordham and Buffalo, but after that is a road game at Oklahoma. And Nebraska still has to play Wisconsin and Iowa in division play and Ohio State and Michigan in crossover play.
Six wins for Nebraska just got that much more difficult in Lincoln, and Frost should be feeling a little bit more pressure than he ever has before.
Coming up in Week 1
Nebraska and Illinois will eachbe back in action this week as Nebraska hosts Fordham and Illinois plays host to UTSA, and the rest of the Big Ten will join the party this coming week. The fun gets started with a pair of Thursday night games involving three Big Ten teams. Ohio State visits Minnesota and Rutgers will be hosting Temple on Thursday evening.
The Big Ten action continues with a Friday night matchup between Northwestern and Michigan State in Evanston. Then on Saturday, Penn State steps into the national spotlight with a FOX Big Noon Kickoff against Wisconsin, arguably the game of the week in the Big Ten. We’ll have coverage of this game all week long, of course, as we head into our first season of football coverage on Nittany Lions Wire.
Elsewhere, the Michigan Wolverines begin a season potentially flying under the radar when they host Western Michigan for a noon kickoff. Iowa will be hosting Indiana in another solid game to keep an eye on. Maryland also has a fun matchup with West Virginia to observe and Purdue will open its season at home against Oregon State.
With a handful of more Big Ten contests on tap, the Week 1 schedule for the Big Ten should provide a good amount of drama and intrigue as the season gets off to a full start.
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