Bob Asmussen | Friendly faces win or lose, club gives Bielema full support

Sep. 15—CHAMPAIGN — If I'm the Illinois football coach coming off a disappointing loss, where would I go?

Easy. To hang out with my most supportive fans. In third-year coach Bret Bielema's case, that means the Illini Quarterback Club.

On Thursday at Champaign's Holiday Inn, 150 from Bielema's loyal booster group welcomed him at the their game-week luncheon.

Technically, Thursday's gathering was the second of the season. The first was held before the game against Toledo at University of Illinois President Tim Killeen's house, which the coach might want to make part of the regular rotation.

"That was a unique experience and we won," Bielema said, "so maybe we've got to go back."

The Quarterback Club provides the program with funding for different needs, often equipment related.

Bielema had just finished practice with his team and a short interview session with local media members before he arrived wearing bright orange.

Bielema shared the timing of the team's week with the crowd.

"(It's) human nature to not be as coachable or listen as well during moments of success as you are during moments of failure," Bielema said. "Really talked to them about that. We had to have big growth."

The Illini were off Monday and returned to work Tuesday morning. With an 11 a.m. kickoff on Fox against Penn State at Memorial Stadium, Bielema had the returners catching the ball at the same time during practice they face in the game.

Bielema gave the club members an injury update, including the return of defensive back Mathew Bailey and outside linebacker Ezekiel Holmes.

"Overall, I like where our guys are," Bielema said. "We'll see where we go on Saturday."

Tall taskThe Nittany Lions' visit to Champaign-Urbana for the first time since 2018. Penn State is ranked No. 7 in The Associated Press Top 25 (No. 6 on the N-G ballot) and enter the game as a 141/2-point favorite, according to oddsmakers. Not a lot of faith in Illinois pulling an upset.

Of course, the oddsmakers are not always right. Like in 2021, when Penn State was a 24-point favorite at home against Illinois, which pulled off a stunning nine-overtime victory.

"I'm sure a lot of you remember the Penn State game last time," Bielema said.

Most of the players from that team have moved on.

"The chance to play Penn State for all these (new) guys, I think, is a big deal," Bielema said.

Inquiring minds

The final 18 minutes of Bielema's 30-minute appearance Thursday included questions from the audience.

The first got right to the point.

What does the defense need to do to avoid allowing 30 points per game?

"Any time you have success or failure, you look at things through a big-picture lens," Bielema said. "As far as the number of points that are going to be scored, I'm not going to make a prediction on that. But I will tell you since Friday to where we are (on Thursday), offense, defense and special teams, you always look at what you can do better. For us, specifically defensively, we don't want to give them free yards."

Another club member asked about late play calls on defense. Since early in Bielema's tenure, Illinois has been a last-call defense, meaning the play is decided after the offense aligns.

"Whenever you don't have success, people look at it under a thicker microscope," Bielema said. "We've literally lined up the exact same way for two years and in the exact same fashion.

"We've got to be ready to play ball before the ball is snapped without a doubt. I think our guys are wired into that and hopefully can do a good job with that as we go forward."

One member wanted to know the plan for Kaden Feagin, the freshman running back from Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond High.

"Great question," Bielema said. "He came in last January and even during the recruiting process, you realized he's a very large man. Looks right. Got all the right bumps in all the right places. Moving forward, we don't have any intentions of redshirting him. Hopefully, he gets more and more opportunities."

How does Bielema balance aggressive play against the possibility of picking up personal-foul penalties?

"What we can't have is post-snap penalties," Bielema said. "Through two games, we've had four of those. We can't have it."

While watching the TV copy of a personal four call against Illini Taz Nicholson, Bielema noticed the Kansas player blowing a kiss to the sideline.

Kind of a "got-you" moment.

"It was action designed to get him to react in a certain way," Bielema said. "That little clip that I showed the team not only taught Taz, but taught the entire room the reaction you gave was the one they were trying to get out of you. That's probably a better teaching moment than anything we can do."