For as long as I have been alive, the Wisconsin football team hasn’t had many problems with the Illinois Fighting Illini football program. Sure, there have been a few years here and there where Wisconsin was down or Illinois was having a random good season where the Illini snagged a win over the Badgers. But for as long as many fans can remember, the Illini have been the Badgers’ little brothers to the south and oftentimes, an easy conference win.
That may not be the case anymore. Although they are sitting in the cellar of the Big Ten West right now, Illinois isn’t the doormat they have been the past 10 years. They are starting to become more competitive, and that’s thanks to none other than former Wisconsin football coach, Bret Bielema.
Bad Blood Between Bret Bielema and the Wisconsin Football Team
I’m sure everyone is aware of the history between Bielema and the Wisconsin football program. While at Wisconsin, Bielema, who succeeded the godfather, Barry Alvarez, enjoyed a lot of success. He led the Badgers to a 68-24 (0.739 winning percentage) record, including three straight Big Ten Championships from 2010-2012 and six bowl games.
Things were all looking great until he abruptly left out of nowhere before the Badgers were slated to play in the 2013 Rose Bowl to take the Arkansas job.
Bielema went on record explaining why he left Wisconsin for Arkansas, saying, “‘I just felt it was time for me to try and spread my wings and fly a little bit further.” He would later make comments comparing the SEC conference to the Big Ten as a factor for his leaving.
In the next season, Wisconsin lost to Arizona State in a controversial ending. If that wasn’t bad enough, Bielema’s wife infamously tweeted ‘#karma’ after the game. It was not a tweet that was well-received by Wisconsin football fans. But Badger fans got the last laugh. After that tweet, Bielema and the Razorbacks struggled mightily while the Wisconsin football program ended up thriving.
Since Jen Bielema tweeted #karma on this day in 2013 after Wisconsin’s wild loss at Arizona State; Wisconsin is 41-12, Arkansas is 23-27
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) September 15, 2017
Bielema ended up getting fired from Arkansas after compiling a 29-34 record in five seasons.
He spent the next three seasons as an assistant coach in the NFL before being hired by Illinois in 2021.
He wasted little time getting on Badger fans’ nerves, focusing a lot of his recruiting in the state of Wisconsin and having some success, landing offensive lineman Joey Okla out of Arrowhead High School. Granted, Okla never got offered by the Badgers, but Bielema was definitely sniffing around the state.
Bielema also hired assistant coaches he had connections with while at Wisconsin, including former Wisconsin defensive back, Aaron Henry, who is now the Illini’s defensive coordinator.
In addition to Henry, Bielema also hired former Wisconsin legend and coach, Jim Leonhard to his staff this offseason. While it is just an ‘analyst’ position and he isn’t actually on the sidelines, adding Leonhard is just another talking point and thing for fans to add to this budding rivalry.
Recruiting Battles Between Illinois and Wisconsin
Speaking of recruiting, the Wisconsin football team has still been more successful than the Illini, but things are definitely more competitive than they used to be.
A great example of this was Wisconsin pulling safety Austin Brown out of Illinois as a part of the 2022 class. The Badgers won the battle, but the Illini were definitely players in his recruitment.
The Illini scored a ‘win’ over the Badgers in the recruitment of defensive back Vernon Woodward, who initially committed to the Badgers but quickly flipped to the Illini just a couple of weeks later. After Woodward flipped, Aaron Henry sent the following tweet:
— Aaron Henry (@AaronHenry7) June 21, 2023
Since this came from a former Wisconsin football player, the tweet wasn’t well received by fans. But Wisconsin coaches also took notice and reportedly, ‘wouldn’t forget’ about the tweet.
Well, now we know that the Badgers were keeping receipts because after the Badgers’ most recent and wild win over Aaron Henry and the Illini, cornerback coach Paul Haynes posted a reply.
— Coach Paul Haynes (@Haynes_Badgers) October 22, 2023
So it appears the rivalry between the coaches is growing, too.
Illinois-Wisconsin Football Matchup History
The Wisconsin Badgers and Illini have been playing each other since 1895. Although it hasn’t been a yearly game, the two programs have faced off a total of 91 times. The Badgers own the series with a record of 45-39-7.
Like most Wisconsin series, they were on the losing side of most games of the Illini series until 1993, when Alvarez took over the program and turned it around. Since 1993, the Badgers and Illini have played each other 27 times. In that span of games, the Badgers dominated with a 21-5-1 record.
But some of the most recent games between the two have been pretty memorable and noteworthy.
2019 Wisconsin Badgers’ College Football Playoff Aspirations Ended by Illinois
In 2019, the Badgers entered the game with a 6-0 record, including a 35-14 win over No. 11 Michigan in Week 4. Before the Illini matchup, the Badgers were averaging 42.5 points per game and giving up just 4.8 points per game. They pitched four shutouts in their first six games. There were legitimate College Football Playoff aspirations in Madison.
The Badgers went into Champaign and laid an egg, falling to the 2-4 Illini, 23-24. That game essentially ended any hopes of reaching the CFP for the Wisconsin football team.
Illini End the Paul Chryst Era
Then last season, the Badgers were coming off a 52-21 beatdown by Ohio State. Things were starting to slip in Madison and the Illinois game presented itself, at the time, as a get-right game for the Badgers.
At home, the Badgers laid another egg, particularly in the second half. The Illini scored a touchdown with 2:48 left in the first half to go up 14-10 at the break. In the second half, there were little to no adjustments. The Illini outscored the Badgers 20-0 in the second half to win the game, 34-10 over the Badgers at Camp Randall.
After the loss, Paul Chryst was dismissed as the head coach of the Wisconsin football program. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was named the interim head coach.
This all led to the Badgers eventually making a splash hire, bringing in Luke Fickell, who has brought a lot of change and excitement with him.
The Luke Fickell Era Starts With a Crazy Comeback Win over Illinois
The Badgers entered the latest Wisconsin-Illini game in must-win mode if they had any hopes of winning the Big Ten West. From the start, things were sluggish. With Braedyn Locke making his first career start, the offense struggled to get going and the Illini’s quarterback was running all over the defense. It seemed like another bad loss for the Badgers, who were coming off a disappointing loss to Iowa.
Then, in the fourth quarter, something clicked. The defense shut down the Illini offense, forcing punts on back-to-back series. The Badgers responded by scoring touchdowns on both of their fourth-quarter possessions (one with a two-point conversion), and outscoring the Illini 15-0. What makes this comeback even more memorable is the sequence of plays leading up to the game-winning touchdown.
Locke dropped a 30-yard dime to Skyler Bell, setting the Badgers up with a first and goal with just 1:28 left in the game.
Three plays later, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Phil Longo went deep into his bag of plays. Locke completed a touchdown pass to backup tackle Nolan Rucci, who was an eligible receiver and standing all alone in the endzone. The play gave the Badgers a 25-21 lead with just 27 seconds left, and ultimately the victory.
Bielema took to Twitter, even days after the game, to make some points about the game and how it was officiated, making the victory over the Illini that much sweeter.
The Future of the Wisconsin-Illinois Rivalry
Of course, just as things are starting to heat up between the two programs, this budding rivalry could get put on ice.
With the addition of the four new teams to the Big Ten starting in 2024, the format of the whole conference is changing. There will no longer be divisions.
In order to preserve some rivalries, the conference allowed each team to submit two rivalry games they’d like to continue to play on a yearly basis. Wisconsin football will still be facing Iowa and Minnesota each season. Those two are the Badgers’ top rivals and it isn’t even close.
So since the Illini are not on that list, the yearly matchups between the Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini are done.
But that doesn’t mean the rivalry on the recruiting trail is going to cool off. As neighboring states, it’s likely the Illini and the Badgers will still be competing for many of the same prospects in the Midwest and nationally.
One thing is for sure, as long as Bielema is in Champaign, the Illini will be competitive and Wisconsin-Illinois games are not going to be meaningless games anymore.
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