Bob Asmussen | Waiting on a quarterback decision

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CHAMPAIGN — You can ask Bret Bielema — multiple times — who is starting at quarterback for Illinois against Iowa: Luke Altmyer or John Paddock?

But don't expect an answer. The Illinois coach's lips are sealed.

You could trust him with the launch codes. Of course, for his team's purpose, this is more important.

Question: Have you made any decision who will start?

"Yeah, obviously the thing we didn't know a week ago was whether or not Luke was going to be ready to play," Bielema said Thursday morning. "Obviously, he got nailed during the course of the week. He was ruled out going into the weekend.

"Our players have known and practiced all week with what our plan is. Again, I think anything that we can do when we go on the road to put our guys in the best position to have success, that guy will be under center."

Let's try that again.

Question: Would you share with us who you think you're going to start at quarterback on Saturday?

"I think our guys have 100 percent no doubt in their mind (who's) going to start at quarterback," Bielema said. "I think the one part that really became clear to me as we've began to evolve with our players is they get really good at practicing what they do.

"I was clear and adamant about what we were going to do from Sunday on. What the outside world knows, it doesn't really matter to me. What happens on Saturday is what matters most."

During an 11-minute session with local reporters on Thursday at the Smith Center, Bielema stuck to his low-info script.

But he is happy to have Altmyer and Paddock on his side.

"I think any time you have two guys that play that position as well as they have is a positive thing," he said.

On Sunday, Bielema talked to the two quarterbacks.

"They knew directionally where we were going and what we were doing," Bielema said, "and that hasn't wavered."

Quarterbacks receive a lot of attention from fans and the media. Bielema gets it. He understands the interest.

"When I'm recruiting them, I tell their parents, 'This position is very unique. At times, you get entirely too much credit and you get entirely too much blame,'" Bielema said.

Whatever happens, Bielema promises to handle the bulk of the criticism. He called Altmyer that night after he threw four interceptions against Penn State two months ago to assure him he was still the starter.

Altmyer has limited his interceptions since.

My takeSo we're not getting anything beforehand from the person who actually has the final call.

As he said, the third-year Illinois coach doesn't really care what the outside world thinks. He is going to do what "gives his team the best chance to win."

Bielema is dealing from a position of strength. He has the once-wayward Illinois program moving in the right direction. He has a big, long contract and a supportive athletic director in Josh Whitman.

The public, and media for that matter, can scream X should start. That doesn't affect Bielema one tiny bit.

He will make a decision, in consultation with the offensive staff, and they will live with it.

I keep coming back to that simple idea: How do you bench a player on a heater?

Most everyone would pick the guy coming off the 507-yard performance. Paddock played the best game ever for an Illinois quarterback in, as Bielema pointed out repeatedly, a win. The 621-yard game by Dave Wilson in 1980, while staggeringly good, came in a loss.

That might be a clue. Paddock won. He is 2-0 as a closer for the Illini.

Altmyer is 3-5 when he finishes the game this season. His last completed game was at home against Wisconsin on Oct. 21. The Illini led by two touchdowns before the Badgers rallied. Altmyer deserves no blame for the giveaway. He threw for two scores without an interception and ran for a team-best 100 yards. It should have been enough.

Altmyer wasn't cleared to play against Indiana after getting knocked out late against Minnesota. Would he have put up the same kind of numbers as Paddock if healthy? Impossible to answer. But the Hoosiers' defense was vulnerable. More likely, Altmyer would have gained chunks of yards on runs, cutting into the passing total.

And the way the game went with the Hoosiers taking a big lead in the first half meant Barry Lunney Jr.'s offense had to pass to catch up. That worked perfect for Paddock, who found open and guarded receivers time after time. On Paddock's lone interception, the ball slipped out of his hand as he was being hit.

He threw four touchdown passes and averaged better than 20 yards per completion. Winning numbers no matter the opponent.

Tough crowdOne more factor worth considering: the noise at Kinnick Stadium.

At Mississippi, the only lengthy time Altmyer saw on the field was in the 2022 Sugar Bowl against Baylor.

His road trips in 2023 include games at Kansas (loss), Purdue (bad loss), Maryland (upset win) and Minnesota (Paddock win).

Paddock played a year ago at Tennessee in front 92,336 fans. He hit 27 of 43 passes for 269 yards in a 59-10 loss, throwing two interceptions and one touchdown.

Playing at Neyland Stadium in front of the Vols fans prepared Paddock for a trip to Kinnick. A smaller building that is as loud as any in the Big Ten. The team prepared for it all week, pumping noise through the speakers at Memorial Stadium loud enough that it could be heard a mile away.

The effect of the crowd must weigh into the decision. In terms of true, on-the-field experience, Paddock and Altmyer are basically tied.

Who is going to handle the pressure against one of the best defensive teams in the country? That's the guy who starts.

Yes, Altmyer has been cleared to play. But would it be better to give his body another week to heal? Especially, given the ferocity of the Iowa defense.

And especially with the way Paddock is playing.