CHAMPAGNE – He’s back. Or at least arrive in time for Saturday’s Illinois-Northwestern football game.
Freshman coach Bret Bielema met the media on Monday afternoon via Zoom. Remember, Bielema is recovering from COVID-19. He feels good.
“Other than being in that same (fucking) room all the time,” Bielema said.
Bielema expects to be allowed to return to his squad by Friday. He hopes sooner.
“I wish it was today. It won’t, ”he said. “I’m just following all the protocols that have been put in place. I want to make sure I’m ok too. I have questions every day.
While Bielema remains isolated, the Illini (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten) continue to prepare for Saturday’s kick-off at 2:30 p.m. against the Wildcats (3-8, 1-7). The game plan is being installed.
“When I enter the building, the hay will already be in the barn,” Bielema said. “We don’t have a school this week, so we adjusted our practices a bit later in the day.”
The team will have a Thanksgiving dinner together.
“We have 115 on our list and 90 of them have RSVP and will be having dinner with us Thursday afternoon in the stadium,” Bielema said.
Even though he wants to see his team again, Bielema is looking forward to being with his family even more. Due to his illness, Bielema was estranged from his wife Jen and their two young daughters, Briella and Brexli.
“I haven’t seen my daughters for a long time,” Bielema said, choking.
Illinois and Northwestern will play for the Land of Lincoln Trophy on Saturday on what will also be senior day for a group of guys who could have left after the 2020 season.
“A really special week this week,” said Bielema.
Last look back
Bielema watched the Illini’s 33-23 loss to Iowa last Saturday from a location far from Champaign-Urbana.
“I’m very proud of our coaches, our players, not just how they presented themselves on Saturday, but how they handled the week,” said Bielema. “I wasn’t surprised, to be honest.”
Of course, he would have liked a different result, with Iowa extending their winning streak against Illinois to eight games.
Bielema met the team Sunday night on Zoom. What did he say?
“’I like it. You played hard. You were competitive. You did a lot of really good things. The movie shows it,” Bielema recalls. “But we don’t do enough good things in all three phases to win We are not in the participation ribbons We love to win games.
Frustrating moments ensued for Bielema during the game. Like when the game became volatile between the two teams, which resulted in minor brawls.
“It was obvious that the referees couldn’t handle the moment and allowed him to reach this level,” said Bielema. “It is like that. We will move forward.
The day saw Bielema watch the game with reruns available.
“I’m going crazy,” Bielema said. “This part is really real.
“It brings a lot more detail to the game that I never really thought about. It was a unique experience.
Bielema didn’t speak to many people on his private surveillance party.
“It went faster than I expected,” Bielema said.
Bielema warned the team ahead of time of the threat of Iowa Charlie Jones returning.
“I said, ‘If we play well on defense and do what we’re supposed to do on offense, they’re going to look to this phase of their game to try and change the game,” Bielema said.
Sure enough, Jones returned a 100-yard kickoff to reduce Illinois’ lead to 10-7.
“It was a defining moment,” said Bielema.
Pat on the back After recording 51/2 tackles for a loss to Iowa, Illini linebacker Isaiah Gay was named Big Ten defensive player of the week on Monday.
“Seeing the improvement he’s made this year as a player is probably one of the biggest improvements I’ve seen in the season,” said Bielema. “It’s to his credit, Coach (Kevin) Kane and the defensive coaches who work with him.
“He took up the challenge.
How has Gay improved?
“There are a lot of times I’ve had one-on-one conversations that were fun and others not that fun,” Bielema said. “I am a strong believer in aloud praise and whispered criticism. I definitely emphasized his playing both positively and negatively at times in the team meeting environment. Fortunately for us, over the past six weeks it has been very positive. “
Bielema praised Gay’s football IQ, athleticism and outreach.
“He made a conscientious effort to play a certain way,” Bielema said, “and he’s going to be rewarded for it.”