Ever since Illinois coach Bret Bielema was hired in December, he's repeatedly mentioned that "penalties, mental errors and turnovers" are the easiest ways to lose games.
All three were on full display in the Illini's 42-14 loss at Virginia on Saturday, just days after Bielema drove that point home again during his weekly Monday press conference.
Illinois committed two turnovers, one interception and one fumble. But the perhaps the biggest issue Bielema addressed following his team's second straight loss was its lack of composure. The Illini racked up eight penalties for 90 yards, including three 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in the second half.
"Completely unacceptable, especially some of the reactions late in the game that we can't have," Bielema said in his post-game press conference
The first personal foul came in the third quarter after running back Chase Brown rushed for seven yards, but then said something to a Cavaliers defender while jogging back to the huddle. The penalty turned what would've been a 2nd-and-3 into a 2nd-and-18.
The second personal foul was committed by outside linebacker Isaiah Gay, who pushed a Virginia player down right in front of an official and well after the whistle was blown. Three plays later, linebacker Tarique Barnes shoved another Cavaliers player in the face as a referee tried to separate them. Both penalties gave Virginia automatic first downs and eventually led to its sixth touchdown of the game.
"Again, it's not so much what happens, it's how you react to what happens and the clarity of that," Bielema said. "Even myself, I have to make sure that I handle the moment and react to the things that I see. And our players, there's definitely some teaching moments that we had (Saturday) that I think will be even more maximized (Sunday) during film session."
From a talent perspective, it's fair to say the Cavaliers have more of it than Illinois. That much was evident when Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong diced up the Illini's defense on back-to-back touchdown drives to start the game. He eventually ended the day with 436 yards of total offense, a career-high 405 through the air, and five touchdowns. Armstrong's lone interception in the fourth quarter would've gone for another score if Illinois defensive back Kerby Joseph didn't make a highlight-reel play by ripping the ball away from Cavaliers wide receiver Keytaon Thompson in midair.
Still, the Illini were clearly over-matched from a personnel standpoint, and I don't know how much tweaking Bielema could've done to mask or overcome that.
As he goes back to the drawing board, though, I do think the team will be more disciplined moving forward. Sure, there will still be penalties, miscues and perhaps lopsided losses, but I don't think we'll see the players' emotions boil over again like they did Saturday.
I also won't condemn them for it, either. After a season-opening home win over Nebraska, Illinois defensive backs coach Aaron Henry said players were riding high after knocking off a Big Ten West rival. Last week's performance took some wind out of their sail, but not all of it considering that they narrowly lost to a UTSA program that would give a few more Big Ten programs a run for their money.
This week is different. In my opinion, it marks the first real adversity the Illini have faced during Bielema's nine-month tenure. They were hit squarely in the mouth by Virginia, which never let up, and I'm interested to see how the team responds not only performance-wise, but character-wise after a such a humbling defeat.
Will Illinois show more composure than it did Saturday or will hotheaded outbursts become a trend as the season continues?
Based off Bielema's coaching experience — which includes two years with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and the zero tolerance "Patriot Way" — I'm choosing the former.
"Sometimes when you're taking over a program, when you're beginning to establish this mentality, as a coach you identify it, and maybe somebody from the outside looking in realizes there's an issue, but unless you can actually have a young man replicate (that) and give you confirmation like, 'Yes, that was the incorrect response,' that's kind of where we're at right now," Bielema said. "So I think just to be able to do that is a big step in the right direction."
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