Arkansas football fans have seen this movie before. After a promising second season, Illinois is off to a rocky start in Year 3.
The Fighting Illini avoided a similar fate as the 2015 Razorbacks by kicking a game-winning field goal with five second left to beat Toledo in their season opener, but they weren’t so lucky Friday night.
In the first of back-to-back games against Arkansas’ last two bowl opponents, Illinois lost to Kansas 34-23 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. It was 34-7 late in the third quarter and the Illini managed a couple of touchdowns and two-point conversions to make it a more respectable margin.
His stats weren’t nearly as impressive as what he put up in the Liberty Bowl, but Jalon Daniels still gave Illinois fits by accounting for more than 300 yards and throwing a pair of touchdown passes.
Things don’t get any easier this week, either, as Illinois welcomes Penn State to Memorial Stadium. The Nittany Lions are much closer to a typical James Franklin team than what Arkansas faced in the Outback Bowl a couple of years ago. Fresh off a bounce back season in which it went 11-2, won the Rose Bowl and finished with its fourth top-10 ranking in seven years, Penn State is 2-0 and No. 7 in the AP Poll.
There’s a very good chance Bielema begins Year 3 with a 1-2 record. Of course, he opened Year 3 at Arkansas by winning just one of his first four games and eventually falling to 2-4.
The Razorbacks then won six of their last seven games and ended up having a very good season. A quick look at Illinois’ schedule and something similar seems possible in Champaign, as only one of the Illini’s final nine games are against ranked foes — No. 25 Iowa on Nov. 18 — and they avoid Ohio State and Michigan in the regular season.
Illinois Football Fans Aren’t Happy
Don’t tell that to an Illinois football fan, though. As you’d expect, they aren’t happy with how poorly Bret Bielema’s team played Friday night and many took to social media to express those feelings.
Coordinators with Arkansas Ties Also Targeted
One of the contributing factors to Bret Bielema’s downfall at Arkansas was his inability to hire assistant coaches who were better than or even similar to those they were replacing.
It’s still too early to draw any final conclusions, but his new hire at defensive coordinator isn’t receiving any rave reviews through two weeks. Aaron Henry, a first-time play caller who was a graduate assistant under Bielema at Arkansas from 2014-15, was promoted to the position this offseason. He replaced Ryan Walters, who left to become the head coach at Purdue after leading the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense in 2022.
His unit has allowed 28 points to Toledo and 34 points to Kansas so far, which is why Illini Inquirer’s Jeremy Werner wrote that his defense is already at a “crossroads.”
“While the Illini defense was expected to regress after losing three star defensive backs to the NFL, the Illinois defense during the first two games of the 2023 season has more closely resembled the leaky sieve of Lovie Smith’s five-year tenure — during which the Illini allowed 32.5 points per game — than the suffocating defenses of the last two seasons under Walters,” Werner wrote after the Kansas loss.
On the other side of the ball, Barry Lunney Jr. — an Arkansas native who both played and coached for the Razorbacks — hasn’t escaped criticism either.
He inherited a much worse unit than Henry, as the Illini ranked 116th nationally in scoring offense (20.2 ppg) the year before he arrived, but they were only marginally better in his first season calling the shots. Illinois averaged just 24.2 points in 2022, which ranked 95th in the FBS.
Through two games, the Illini are tied for 85th in scoring at 26.5 points per game and now Lunney’s play calling has been called into question, with Rees Woodcock of Writing Illini begging him to “run the dang ball.”
“I just don’t understand the offensive mindset of the Illinois football team right now,” Woodcock wrote. “Barry Lunney Jr. needs to correct this. Illinois can run the ball well, and we are not utilizing the running backs we have on the roster.”
It’s probably a good thing that Woodcock specifically mentioned running backs because Lunney did dial up a Kendal Briles special in the loss to Kansas — the ‘ol tight end sneak.
Arkansas Can’t Throw Stones
As fun as it may be for some, Arkansas football fans can’t exactly revel in the failures of past coaches — Bret Bielema, Kendal Briles or even Chad Morris — at the moment because they have plenty to worry about themselves.
The Razorbacks are 2-0, but didn’t exactly look great in a 28-6 win over Kent State — a team they were favored to beat by nearly twice that.
For the second week in a row, the offensive line struggled to open things up in the run game. That’s been a surprising development considering Pittman’s reputation. After all, his departure from Arkansas following the 2015 season is widely considered another turning point in Bielema’s tenure, as offensive line play severely fell off in 2016 and 2017.
There was also major turnover on his staff this offseason, including at both coordinator spots. Granted the level of competition hasn’t been great, but Travis Williams’ unit has put up some really good numbers through two games. The jury is still out on Dan Enos’ return to Fayetteville, though.
Needless to say, we should all know a little bit more about the direction of this season sooner rather than later because BYU comes to town this week followed by four straight SEC games away from Fayetteville.
More coverage of former Arkansas football coaches from BoAS…