Listening to the coaches talk on Monday, it was easy to tell who was coaching his first game at his new school and who is entering a win-or-else season.
While Illinois coach Bret Bielema seemed relaxed in talking about his team ahead of its season and Big Ten Conference opener Saturday against visiting Nebraska, Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost appeared to have taken a page from the Bill Belichick book of media relations.
After three years at Nebraska, Frost is 12-20. That’s not going to work in many places, and particularly so in Lincoln, where most fans still believe the Cornhuskers are an elite program even though they haven’t been one for more than a decade.
Asked about his team’s depth chart for the season opener, Frost’s response was, “We are just getting ready for that first game. No depth chart.”
On the other side of that matchup, Bielema was downright expansive when asked about his quarterback, Brandon Peters.
“I’ve been in the NFL for three years, and I would say he has that caliber of arm,” Bielema said in affirming Peters would get the call. “Just as far as a 10-yard out route to a 60-yard post, he has all of the throws.
“It’s just whether or not he can make them to the right person at the right time in the right situation.”
More often than not, the answer last year was no. Peters connected on just 39 of 80 passes during the Fighting Illini’s truncated 2-6 season. He missed three games due to COVID-19 protocol in what turned into a lost season for the program, leading to the departure of Lovie Smith and the arrival of Bielema just before Christmas.
Bielema piloted Wisconsin to a 68-24 record from 2006-12, winning three straight Big Ten titles and the conference’s first two championship games. While he didn’t experience that kind of success from 2013-17 at Arkansas, his hiring by Illinois was mostly seen as a good fit.
Then again, Frost’s hiring at Nebraska after taking UCF to a perfect season in 2017 was also viewed as a home run hire by some. However, the Cornhuskers have mixed in more strikeouts than long balls during his tenure.
One of the more embarrassing whiffs came last November in Lincoln, when the Illini came into town and never trailed in a 41-23 blowout that wasn’t all that close. And now Nebraska has to figure out just what Illinois might do with a new coaching staff.
“All we can do is guess, so we are just doing the best we can to prepare for the game,” Frost said.
One known quantity with the Cornhuskers is quarterback Adrian Martinez, who at his best can bedevil a defense with his arm and feet. Martinez has compiled 842 total yards, including 661 in the air, in three career starts against the Illini.
–Field Level Media