CHAMPAIGN – There are a number of reasons why Saturday will be a unique and special day at Memorial Stadium for the host team.
For one, Illinois gets the chance to welcome back fans for the first time since November of 2019 when they lost to Northwestern in the season finale. The COVID-19 pandemic kept them away in 2020, so Saturday’s game against Nebraska is a homecoming for supporters of the Illini.
As they do so, they’ll also get to see their team open up the college football season in this “Week 0” of the season, playing the earliest game in school history. This was supposed to be a contest that would be played in Dublin, Ireland, but it was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic then moved to champaign early in 2021, so this Big Ten match-up is a bit earlier than usual.
Of course, this is also the start of the Bret Bielema era of Illinois football, as he takes over for the fired Lovie Smith, as he takes over as the 26th head coach in school history. It comes nearly a decade after he left Wisconsin, and the native of Prophetstown gets his second shot in the Big Ten after a stint at Arkansas and the NFL.
He’ll try to keep a streak alive for new Illinois head coaches that stretches back to the late 1990s: The last four coaches with the Illini have each won their opening games. Bielema’s opener, however, comes against a Big Ten opponent, which was not the case for Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit, and Lovie Smith.
As he takes over the program, however, Bielema is keeping the first game of his tenure in perspective despite the spotlight and the fact that Saturday will already have an impact on the Big Ten standings.
“One of my mantras is to focus on the next game and get the job done. Just take it one week at a time,” said Bielema. “The team has been focused on Nebraska since January, but to beat them we have to play ‘Illinois Football.'”
He’ll have some players who know about that, with veteran lineman Vederian Lowe, Doug Kramer, Alex Palczewski, quarterback Brandon Peters, running backs Chase Brown & Mike Epstein, tight ends Daniel Barker & Luke Ford, along with receiver Donny Navarro.
Defensively sees the return of linebacker Jake Hansen and Owen Carney, defensive lineman Isaiah Gay & Jamal Woods, defensive backs Sydney Brown & Tony Adams. All of these players will try to get Illinois to a bowl for a second time in three seasons while also trying for the school’s first winning season since 2010.
Larry Hawley was live at Memorial Stadium for Friday’s WGN News Now, and you can see his report in the video above.