Bob Asmussen | Is Illinois football ready for the road? Stay tuned

Sep. 5—CHAMPAIGN — In Bret Bielema's first two seasons as Illinois football coach, the road has been mostly kind.

His teams went 5-5 with victories at Penn State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern.

Four of the five losses were by 10 points or less.

The road openers, however, have been more problematic. There, Bielema's team is 0-2, dropping games at Virginia in 2021 and Indiana in 2022.

And Illinois (1-0) is an underdog, albeit by just 31/2 points, for Friday night's 6:30 p.m. nonconference kickoff at Kansas (1-0).

"A tremendous challenge on Friday," Bielema said during his Monday press conference in the Memorial Stadium press box. "Super excited to get there and see where we're at."

Bielema goes all glass half-full when it comes to road games.

"One of the things we've talked to our players about is just embrace the whole travel experience from beginning to end," Bielema said. "We're going to go on the road together, 74 players, a group of coaches and support staff. We'll fly over to Lawrence."

The Jayhawks drew 41,091 for the their opener against Missouri State this past Friday night at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. The home team won 48-17 using a backup quarterback.

The 102-year-old building seats 47,000. Bielema expects them all to be filled. After all, a Big Ten team is coming to town.

"They'll have a great crowd," Bielema said. "It's something they've been aiming toward and talking about for a long time. So we're excited about the opportunity.

"I know they got new jerseys that they're going to debut. There is a lot of thought that has gone into this game, and I think that's awesome. That's what college football is all about."

Illinois gets a psychological boost from winning on the road in the recent past.

"For our guys, one of the things we learned that first year going to Penn State, we went into an environment with 110,000 and we knew we would be the only ones cheering for Illinois," Bielema said. "Our guys, in particular with the attitude that we preach, the mentality of being an underdog with a chip on your shoulder, there's a lot of different things we can play to that we really embrace."

Familiar faceBielema knows Kansas coach Lance Leipold well. Their friendship goes back Leipold's time leading Wisconsin-Whitewater to six Division III national titles.

"Everywhere Lance has gone, they've always won," Bielema said. "It's just super important to realize he is a solid, fundamental coach, offense, defense, special teams.

"He surrounds himself with coaches that have been with him a long time. They believe in their system and they believe in what they do."

Like Bielema at Illinois, Leipold took over a gasping Kansas program prior to the 2021 season and quickly revived it.

"It's very apparent his coaching style philosophy, overall program philosophy has continued to show up more and more every year," Bielema said. "I've got to believe this year will be another step in that same direction."

The two have had recent contact.

"Lance and I saw each other at the (NFL) draft in Kansas City," Bielema said. "They had a player there. We had a player there.

"I naturally like people that are at other programs that maybe haven't been the blue bloods. I know they are a blue blood in basketball. What he's done speaks volumes about what an effect a head coach can have with the people he brings in, the players he brings in. I give a lot of credit to the people that make those hires."

Point of emphasisKansas star quarterback Jalon Daniels didn't play in the opener. Jason Bean took his place and threw for 276 yards and ran for another 41 against Missouri State.

If Daniels is able to go Friday — and the guess here he will — then he presents problems for the Illinois defense. The same kinds it just faced against Toledo's mobile quarterback Dequan Finn.

"In my three years here, (Finn) is probably one of the more dynamic, explosive playmakers we have ever faced at the quarterback position," Bielema said. "There will be a little bit of carryover. Probably not the same. but some."

Though he is pass first, Daniels is also able to make plays with his legs. He ran for 425 yards and seven scores in 2022 despite missing a handful of games.

Daniels, who is recovering from a 2022 injury that cost him time, is considered a Heisman candidate and the top player in the loaded Big 12.