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Watch now: Bielema plans to be on Illini sidelines for season finale against Northwestern

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Illinois Iowa Football

Illinois assistant head coach George McDonald throws to a receiver before the Illini's game against Iowa last Saturday. McDonald has been Illinois' acting head coach while Bret Bielema has been in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois concludes the regular season against Northwestern on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Bret Bielema figures to be with his football team again.

The Illini's first-year head coach tested positive for COVID-19 a week ago and missed last Saturday's 33-23 loss at Iowa. Bielema, who has been vaccinated, remains in isolation at an undisclosed location in the Champaign-Urbana area waiting to get the all-clear signal from doctors. 

"I hope to return to the building Friday at the latest. It's still kind of a work in progress," said Bielema during Monday's Zoom press conference. "I feel great other than being in this same damn room all the time."

Illinois assistant head coach/wide receivers coach George McDonald has assumed acting head coach duties while Bielema is absent.

Bielema has watched practices and been in meeting with the players and coaches via Zoom while he is in isolation.

"I basically lost communication with the team 90 minutes before kickoff and sat at the vantage point of a spectator watching on TV until really after the game," said Bielema. "I'm very proud of our coaches and players not only for how they showed up on Saturday, but how they handled the week."

However, not being with his team isn't the most important thing Bielema has missed.

"I haven't seen my girls for a long time," he said, getting choked up, about his two young daughters and wife. "That's what I'm probably looking forward to more than anything."

Illinois dropped to 4-7 overall (3-5 in the Big Ten) with the loss at Iowa and won't be going to a bowl game for the second straight year unless there are not enough six-win teams eligible. Then, Illinois could possibly be selected for a bowl.

To suggest that all that is on the line against Northwestern (3-8, 1-7) is the Land of Lincoln Trophy would be wrong, according to Bielema. 

The Illini will hold their Senior Day. Illinois has 41 seniors, including a Power-5 conference-high 21 "super seniors" who received an extra year due to COVID-19. The other 20 seniors still have an extra year of eligibility and could use it if they choose.

Illinois also is trying to break a six-year losing streak against Northwestern.

"This is a Big Ten West divisional opponent and this is the last game of the year and the last opportunity for us to be together," said Bielema. "Senior Day should be one of the most memorable experiences of your life. I promise I'm going to be emotional.

"Everyone should be crying for all the right reasons because it's been so awesome. I've only had these guys for a year, but we've built relationships that I know are going to go way beyond anything that encompasses this year."

Gay earns Big Ten honor

Illinois senior outside linebacker Isaiah Gay was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week on Monday after recording 5.5 tackles for loss against Iowa.

Those 5.5 TFLs were the third most in a game in Illinois history and the most ever for an Illini player in a Big Ten game. It also tied for the most TFLs in a Big Ten game this season (Purdue's Leo Chenal, 5.5, at Wisconsin) and were the second-most TFLs in a college football game this season (Missouri's Blaze Alldredge, 6.0, vs. Central Michigan).

Gay had 10 total tackles and one sack.

"In my entire time as a head coach ... to see the improvement he's made this year as a player is probably one of the single greatest in-season improvements I've seen," said Bielema.

Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_benson


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