COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Illini seek bowl eligibility with dueling quarterbacks

Nov. 18—IOWA CITY, Iowa. — Should a starter lose his position because of an injury?

That's an age-old question that coaches have dealt with since the beginning of athletics.

Illinois football coach Bret Bielema has successfully danced around the answer all week as his Fighting Illini playing for bowl eligibility head to Nile Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City to take on the Big Ten Conference West Division leading Iowa Hawkeyes.

So will it be John Paddock, who threw for a Memorial Stadium record 507 yards in a 48-45 overtime win against Indiana last week, or will it be Luke Altmyer, who guided the Illini to wins over Toledo, Florida Atlantic and at Maryland, starting at quarterback in today's 2:30 p.m. contest?

"Our players have known and practice all week with what our plan is," said Bielema on Thursday. "Anything we can do when we go on the road to put our guys in the best position to have success — that will be the guy under center."

That statement comes after some social media posts suggesting that Altmyer, who suffered a concussion against Minnesota that resulted in Paddock coming off the bench to lead Illini past the Gophers, would get his job back.

Probably because of what Bielema said on Monday.

"I've never been a coach that has ever put a player in a position that they have lost (their position) by injury," he said during his weekly news conference. "Obviously, John (Paddock) has played exceptionally well. Our guys will know the plan. The good news is we have two guys that we feel can play."

In other words, the coaches at Iowa, including Kirk Ferentz, who mentored Bielema in his early days, know as much about the starting quarterback this week for Illinois as anyone outside of the program.

"Our guys have 100 percent no doubt in their mind who is going to start at quarterback," Bielema said. "They (our players) have gotten really good at practicing what we do, and what we emphasize in practice. I was clear and adamant about what we were going to do from Sunday on. What the outside world knows or doesn't know really doesn't matter to me.

"What happens on Saturday matters the most."

And over the last month, what has happened on Saturdays is that Illinois (5-5 overall, 3-4 in the Big Ten West) have won three out of four games to move within one win of becoming bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons. That's something that hasn't happened since the 2010 and 2011 seasons under Ron Zook.

"Sunday, we always take a look at the world of college football. We definitely showed them where we stand in the Big Ten West," Bielema said. "We did make a note of the two teams listed above us — we still have to play Iowa and Northwestern.

"Our players are very aware of what's out there. We need to take advantage of this opportunity."

While Illinois is playing for an opportunity to play in bowl game and earn extra practice time in December, the Iowa Hawkeyes (8-2 overall, 5-2 in the Big Ten West) are a win away from being the final winner of the Big Ten's West Division, earning a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis.

"It's certainly a goal," said Ferentz, who led Iowa to the Big Ten Championship games in 2015 and 2021. "At the start of the season, you want to be the Big Ten West champs if you have that opportunity. The bigger goal right now is just winning games."

The Hawkeyes, who have secured at least a share of the final Big Ten West Division title with their win over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights last week, have the eighth best defense in NCAA Division I football.

Iowa's opponents are averaging just 281.5 yards and 12.3 points per game.

"Playing Iowa is a very unique animal," said Bielema, whose team beat the Hawkeyes 9-6 a year ago in Champaign. "You can't get frustrated. Last year, we kicked three field goals.

"You need to know your opponent and you better take advantage of every scoring opportunity you get."

Today's game will be the first for Bielema in Iowa City since Wisconsin beat Iowa 31-30 on Oct. 23, 2010. Two years ago, Iowa beat Illinois 33-23 at Kinnick Stadium but Bielema missed that game because of COVID.

Ironically, the last time that the Illini won at Kinnick was 1999 when Bielema was the linebackers coach at Iowa under Ferentz, who was in his first season with the Hawkeyes. Illinois also beat Iowa in 2000.

"History is always good when you can teach it," Bielema said. "When was the last time Illinois had two victories in a row over Iowa? Little did I know it was 1999 and 2000. I Googled a picture of Bret Bielema in 2000 and showed it to the guys. It was kind of fun for them, they embraced it ... anything that gives them perspective and history is really good."

Today's game will be shown on Fox Sports 1, while it can also be heard on the Busey Bank Illini Sports Network, including Danville stations WDNL-FM 102.1 and WDAN-AM 1490.