Bret Bielema’s overarching message to his first Illinois football team can be summed up in two words:
Or, the more elucidated version:
Before you can win a game, you’ve got to stop losing it.
That means cutting down on momentum-busting turnovers. It means avoiding the sort of mental errors that good teams find unacceptable. It means keeping the refs’ yellow laundry tucked inside their waistbands where it belongs.
The Illini were 2-6 last season and 17-39 overall under Lovie Smith, who just couldn’t turn around a program that has often seemed to be un-turn-aroundable. Enter Bielema, who dreams big, talks big, expects a ton from his players and sometimes has really good ideas such as scheduling the team’s spring football game on a Monday night.
“The fact that we can be live on the Big Ten Network,” he said, “I think it’s got these guys jacked up.”
It’s Orange vs. Blue. It’s sixth-year senior Brandon Peters vs. sophomore Isaiah Williams in a coin-flip competition at quarterback. It’s another needed fresh start for the Illini. It’s a football game with fans in the stands.
“If you know your parents are going to be there, your family, your friends, you’re being watched on national TV, whatever it is, I think it’s going to bring you a little juice,” Bielema said. “I think we’ll see a good, active frenzy on Monday night.”
A frenzy? Love that word. Memorial Stadium hasn’t seen many football frenzies lately.
Here’s what’s happening:
White Sox at Red Sox (10:10 a.m., NBCSCH)
Starters Lucas Giolito and Nathan Eovaldi have much in common, from Tommy John surgery to back-to-back Opening Day assignments to lively fastballs. One big difference: While Giolito evolves into an expert craftsman, Eovaldi blasts ahead with 100-plus heat.
Bulls at Celtics (6:30 p.m., NBCSCH+)
The Bulls need a win, but the C’s are on a six-game winning streak during which Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have averaged a combined 61.5 points. What could go wrong?
Blackhawks at Predators (7 p.m., NBCSCH)
The Hawks have played five games against Nashville and lost ’em all, yet somehow only two points separates the teams in the Central standings. Thanks, hockey math.
Illinois spring football game (7 p.m., BTN)
Because all the team’s starters will play on the Orange side, points will be doubled whenever the Blue side scores. Would it kill the Packers to extend the Bears that courtesy once in a while?
Mets at Cubs (6:40 p.m., ESPN, Marquee)
It’s a chance to see old friend Albert Almora Jr., though you might have to look into the visitors’ dugout to find him. The former No. 6 overall draft pick is playing even less with the Mets than he did with the Cubs.
Kansas City at Red Stars (7:30 p.m., Paramount+)
The Red Stars are 0-1-1 in Challenge Cup group play. Expansion team KC — back in the NWSL business for the first time since 2017 — is 0-1.
Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (9 p.m., HBO)
Think the pandemic has been hard on sports fans? One of four segments this episode examines how league shutdowns sparked rises in depression, anxiety and other mental-health disorders in athletes at all levels.
White Sox at Indians (5:10 p.m., NBCSCH+)
Someone will have to step in and start in place of Lance Lynn, who’s on the 10-day injured list with a strained right trapezius. Sadly, Lynn’s future as a circus performer is also in jeopardy.
Mets at Cubs (6:40 p.m., Marquee)
Likely Mets starter Jacob deGrom struck out nine straight batters in his last outing, already has a pair of 14-strikeout games and is sporting a miniscule 0.45 ERA. In other words, the Cubs have him right where they want him.
Hornets at Bulls (8 p.m., NBCSCH)
The Hornets are under .500 for the first time in a month and still without Gordon Hayward, who scored 34 points in the teams’ first meeting. In other words, they have the Bulls right where they want them.
Brewers at Cubs (1:20 p.m., Marquee)
Is it really the teams’ third series of the season already? You’d think by now they were sick and tired of the Edens Expressway commute.
Predators at Blackhawks (7 p.m., NBCSCH+)
By the end of this one, we’re going to have a much better sense of which team will snatch the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central. Unless the Hawks and Preds are still pretty much tied in the standings, which they probably will be.
Bulls at Heat (7 p.m., NBCSCH)
The most exciting five words in sports? Definitely “10-vs.-7 playoff matchup.” Not to freak everybody out, but this could be a preview of that.
Fire at Atlanta United (7 p.m., Ch. 9)
Just saying, blowing an early 2-0 lead as the Fire did in their opener isn’t the greatest strategy for the season.
Rangers at White Sox (1:10 p.m., NBCSCH)
After this one, the Sox get to enjoy a nice day off. Hopefully, Yermin Mercedes won’t spend all of it sulking because his batting average is mired in the .400s.
Brewers at Cubs (1:20 p.m., Marquee)
Brandon Woodruff is lined up to start for the Brew Crew. Will he hit Willson Contreras again? Will he sneak into the Cubs’ bullpen between innings and fire a ball behind Ryan Tepera? Stay tuned, folks.