Bret Bielema Post-Game Quotes

January 2, 2023

ReliaQuest Bowl: Mississippi State vs Illinois
Monday, January 2, 2023
Tampa, Florida, USA
Raymond James Stadium
Bret Bielema
Press Conference

Mississippi State - 19, Illinois - 10

BRET BIELEMA: Give a lot of credit to Mississippi State. They came in and battled it out for four quarters, winning it at the end.

I thought it would be a gritty game. Really kind of played to script how I thought, we thought it would play out. I thought our defense would play well.

I couldn't give enough credit to our younger players, especially in the secondary, when you have really your best corner, the next best corner is out with injury. One of our better safeties out. I thought those guys really stepped up not only today, but really all the preparation back in Champaign and the practices down here. Really was excited about those guys defensively.

Offensively just kind of one of those days where we were just a little bit off. From our last corner route to Isaiah opening on a fourth and -- third and nine that just bounces off his fingertips, that kind of is the epitome of the whole day offensively. A lot of good things, some positive things, just not enough to get over the end.

Told our guys at halftime we had a legal procedure penalty that took seven off the board, and obviously we got sacked and took us out of field goal range. Defensively we had an ME that really gave them the best yardage of the day that allowed that first field goal to happen. So some self-inflicted things.

Not taking anything at all away from Mississippi State. They played a great game and played to their strengths and came through in the end.

What this does is obviously closes the season. A lot of positive things for our program, offense, defense, special teams. Today personnel-wise, when we have guys that miss, Brian Hightower pulled his hammy a little bit back in Champaign. Thought we might get him back this week, but he didn't get through.

So we were kind of short at the wide receiver position. Obviously left with the portal. Tight end position was cut down a little bit. Offensively we were a little bit banged up. Then obviously at running back, I thought Reggie and Josh did a really nice job of preparation, but it was really their first game as kind of their tandem in their together.

So some things that will get us excited about the future. Had a lot of really good young players that played well today and will continue to play better as the season goes along.

Right now we'll get back to Champaign, some guys have some decisions to make, and we'll have a long conversation then. January 4th at 8:00, we can have some portal guys come in for visits. We'll take two or three weeks of live recruiting here to continue to build our roster.

One thing I can promise you is we've really built this roster, I think, into a roster that it's hard that you have to really try to find a guy that doesn't belong here. We've got guys that believe in what we are, what we do, how we work, what we are, and I think we've just got to continue to stay on that path.

With that, I'll open it up for questions.

Q. A lot of close losses in the last year. What do you guys need to do to finish it?

BRET BIELEMA: The question is we had a lot of close losses. We lost five games by one score. That falls directly to me as head coach. We've got to find the answers to come through.

Some of it has been offensively, defensively, special teams definitely had a factor in some of these. It's kind of a mixed bag. I know that during bye week 2 we still were on a pretty good streak. So it wasn't as big. We really looked at that Indiana game after it happened, corrected, modified some things.

Michigan State, Purdue, and of course Michigan, those were all three very tough games, all kind of played out a little bit different in the end. Michigan, there was a big fourth down call. The Purdue game, there was a play right before the half that kind of flipped the script, and then we -- in the Michigan State game, there was just some -- I thought that was probably more at the end we just didn't play well. We have to close well. We're a good football team that didn't play very well that day.

Obviously this was a tough one today. This was a defensive battle that probably came down to who had the ball last, who was able to execute. Unfortunately, we came up short.

Q. You mentioned being shorthanded. Do you think that's going to be something you fill in from the transfer portal?

BRET BIELEMA: The transfer portal to me is maybe a lot of things, when you lose guys early, so definitely Spoon, right? Before the year started, I thought, if he played well, there's a chance we might lose him, but he played himself into possibly being the first corner taken in the NFL draft. So I really didn't foresee that at that level.

But I think it makes sense to grab a corner for a corner given that scenario.

Obviously Chase Brown jumped out, right? He had a year left of eligibility. So depending on what we feel at the running back position, there's some easy ones there to go one-for-one. I don't want to make a huge living in the portal, but I do think it gives us a chance to replace old players that aren't here anymore.

I think we're always going to be a developmental high school type program, but we definitely want to supplement where there's a need.

Q. Did Mississippi State do anything that you didn't expect to get all those sacks?

BRET BIELEMA: No. There was definitely some different paths, pressures, just the overall concepts of what they did were on task. I don't think we handled the movement extremely well. I thought we could have done some things with our legs a little bit better.

Hindsight's 20/20, right? You have to execute, and you have to not just be able to block them all. You have to execute the throw then. If the pass is taken away, the concept is taken away, we've got to find a better answer in our protection.

Q. What was your confidence level coming into today?

BRET BIELEMA: Question is what was my confidence level with the run game without Chase, with Reggie and Josh. I thought we had a good game plan. Obviously there were times today where I didn't think our inside zones went well, but in the second half, we talked about a little more gap schemes, and they kind of hit us on that drive where we went right down the field and did some nice play action pass off those looks as well.

I think overall we didn't run the ball effectively well. I can't say right now if it was any one specific thing, but I'll give Mississippi State credit for being able to take away what we were hopefully trying to get done.

Q. Can you comment further on the state of the program heading into the off-season and how you use this season as a stepping stone heading forward?

BRET BIELEMA: Yeah, I hope so. Last year we didn't go anywhere. This year we're in a January bowl game in Florida playing an SEC opponent. This is not a -- this is not a program that will settle. This is kind of hopefully a springboard into bigger and better things.

Very excited to get here to the ReliaQuest Bowl and have this opportunity in this moment. We're trying to get to a nine-win season and obviously fell short, but this is a season that we did a lot of really good things. I think it's good to be disappointed in the end to know how close we were to doing some even bigger things.

You usually get what you're prepared for, what you execute to. Bottom line, we played some really good football this year, and we played some games that weren't that good. Those are the games that ended up getting us in the end.

Today again did some good things against a good football team that won eight games in the SEC Conference, and we didn't do enough good things to make us win today. That unfortunately hurts, but it's part of the process.

Q. I'm curious, I don't know how easy this is to answer, but you brought up Arkansas a lot, made references to your experience there. Going into year 3, it was a good year there. Where is this program kind of on that scale, relative to where you had Arkansas?

BRET BIELEMA: I think when I bring up Arkansas, it's more in the context of learning from experiences in the past. I don't even know what the question is exactly, but we're in year 2. We won eight games. I believe my second year there we won seven games, and year 3 -- we went to three straight bowl games.

I just think about Illinois, what I do know about Illinois is Illinois is in a better position now than they were when we got here, there's no question about that. For us to get to where we want to be, we need to continue to strive forward with our coaching, Xs and Os, offense, defense, and special teams, and we've got to continue to build and develop our roster.

As we mentioned earlier, we lost five games by one score, games that a couple of them really came down to the final drive, final possession of the game.

I know what the off-season will be for me as a head coach. I know what I'll concentrate on. I kind of got into it in December a little bit with our guys. The knowledge and experience we've gained in these moments of adversity have really got to help us in the moments going forward.

I did say to the guys last thing leaving the locker room, when you're home, for the guys returning in the middle of January, think about where you truly want to be. You want to just be a good football team and talk about winning games, or do you want to sacrifice and get to a level of like championship expectations on a yearly basis? I think that's where Josh, myself, and everybody wants us to go and sustain success.

I think, if we're disappointed in an eight-win season, we've made a step in the right direction. By no means am I going to be settling for an eight-win season.

Q. I know it's early, but what's your observations of Zach Arnett?

BRET BIELEMA: It's very easy to see, even before I met Zach, I knew about him, heard his name. Mike and I had conversations before he took the Mississippi State job about defense in the SEC because as you made reference to my Arkansas time.

I was very impressed when I popped on the film and started watching just the detail the defense plays to and the intensity they play with.

As a head coach I've learned, if you've got a coordinator who is kind of in charge, which I think it's fair to say Mike probably did not have a lot of input on the defensive side of the ball, and I think it showed the way Zach designed that defense to fit within the system.

Then to see the way the kids played and just to be around him briefly on three different occasions, you can tell he's a football guy, extremely intelligent, seems like he can put together the big picture in a hurry.

I told him, hey, when I became a head coach, I had a whole year of waiting. I got to ask a bunch of questions. I went to press conferences with my mentor, and I saw things unfold a year before I became a head coach. Obviously he just met me today, so I don't know if he's going to take my advice. But I said, if there's anything I can do, I'd love to have a conversation with you.

I'll be at the convention in a couple weeks. I think it's always neat for bowl teams, if they're willing, to share ideas and thoughts because you see each other at the end of the year, and you can maximize off strengths and weaknesses.

Q. What did you see with Aaron Henry as defensive coordinator today?

BRET BIELEMA: It's a good question. I knew we were going to get this question. Aaron just continues to be who I think he is. From the time that I knew this was the direction I was going to go.

I would say after last year's season, I didn't know quite which direction I was going to go, but as I saw Aaron unfold this fall, I saw really again kind of the same thing I just mentioned with Zach. When you see coaches' players play, when you see the growth that Devon Witherspoon is having, you see the things that are happening, physically, maturity, there's talent development in the tank, but he learned to play the game at a different level. I know that was what was bred into him in Aaron's coaching.

The way the players reacted when I made the announcements, the way they handled practice, they literally didn't miss a beat. Today just the way the game unfolded, he made some adjustments at halftime, played some things within the game. The extreme limitations we had today personnel-wise, I think we made the right choice, and hopefully it's just going to become even better from here.

I think there's some really good intricacies of him and Andy and J-Mo working together. Antonio joined us two days ago. So Antonio will help him on the back end, and those two's prior relationship will be really key in that room. They come from the same cloth.

I'll bring in an outside backer that's going to really bring some huge value for us hopefully in the pass rush game and some different things really to build on some of the things we have to from the past.

Q. What do you think the next step for the offense and how can you build off this?

BRET BIELEMA: Great question. Probably consistency. Consistency, and I think we have to have an identity. I think it's easy to say, okay, we're an up tempo offense. We've got the tempo thing, but what are we?

At times we look like, when we get in the swing of things, things are pretty hard to defend. But then other times when we get hit in the head, it doesn't seem to go anywhere really in a hurry.

So I'm excited for Barry. I think he knows. Obviously we'll have some transition in the running back room, which I think will be very exciting. I think we can bring in some people there that have some thoughts and ideas. And hope to have Ben back with us full-time in the spring.

So there's some exciting things for us offensively. We'll have some new personnel with us in January that give some different strengths in literally every position group. So Barry's a very smart football coach, and I think he'll continue to move this thing forward.

Q. What happened midfield at the very end there? Looked like that almost got pretty bad.

BRET BIELEMA: Don't know. I just know that we were running a Desperado play, and the ball bounced back from that player. I was watching the ball, and then I saw something happen at midfield.

It was part of the game. Zach and I both said afterwards, that doesn't speak to who we are. It's one of those things. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed there in a short fashion.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports