Marchese has had front-row seat for Illini's long climb to success
For a football program, progress can be measured with wins and rankings.
For a player, pats on the back from fellow students can be just as meaningful.
"People kind of recognize who the football players are (since) we're a little bit bigger than a normal person," Illinois sixth-year senior Michael Marchese said in a phone interview from Champaign. "Sometimes people will like pat you on the back to say, 'Good job this weekend.'"
"It's kind of crazy, I've never actually experienced that around here. It's new to me."
Marchese, a tight end from Stevenson High School, has had a front-row seat for this Illini football journey. His first year in 2017, the team finished 2-10 under coach Lovie Smith. Illinois went to a bowl game, changed coaches and now is ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 2011.
The No. 24 Illini host Minnesota on Saturday (11 a.m., BTN) with a share of first place in the Big Ten West on the line.
Second-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema said he did a double-take while his wife Jen watched "The Final Drive" on Big Ten Network last weekend.
"I literally just stopped," Bielema said at his weekly news conference. "I said, 'What did he say?' And she said, 'We haven't been ranked since 2011.' And I had no idea. None."
Well, it's true. There have been some lean years in Champaign, which made last Saturday's ugly 9-6 victory over Iowa feel like a beautiful display.
"The place was packed from start to finish," Marchese said. "At least since I've been here, we haven't had a crowd like that. It was pretty electric."
Marchese first joined the Illini as a walk-on. He saw playing time at safety and linebacker early in his career, then Bielema switched him to tight end for the 2021 season. This season, he has 5 receptions, scored 2 touchdowns and recovered a game-changing fumble on the punt coverage team at Wisconsin on Oct. 1.
His first career touchdown, a 39-yard catch from QB Tommy Devito against Virginia, was meaningful because Marchese had been oh so close to the goal line before.
"I had an interception against Western (Illinois) and I got stopped at the 3 (in 2018)," he said. "Then last year at Minnesota I got stopped at the 2 (on a pass reception). So it was kind of a breakthrough moment. I was pretty happy about it, pretty hyped up and same with my teammates."
Marchese's family ties to football run deep. Older brother Jimmy was an Illini teammate during his first two seasons. Another older brother Joe played at Maryland. Michael's twin brother Henry played football for five years at Iowa and is now trying to break into pro baseball. Their father John played at Iowa during the Hayden Fry era.
Marchese has made the most of his six years of college, collecting a bachelor's degree in economics, a master's in management and is now working on a master's in accountancy.
The biggest factor in Illinois' improvement under Bielema is the defense, which ranks first in the Big Ten in points allowed and second in total defense.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, a Kaneland High School product, called the Illini "incredibly physical," and credited Bielema for putting his personal stamp on the program.
"When Coach B first came in, he established that culture," Marchese said. "He told everyone he wants them back, but this is how it's going to be and the players that rallied around that culture ... those are the players we want in the building.
"You saw that at the end of 2021, I don't think anybody wanted to play us at the end of the year. Now it's rolling over to this year.."
Injury questions could play a role in Saturday's game. Minnesota RB Mohamed Ibrahim missed the 20-10 loss to Purdue on Oct. 1 with an ankle injury, but is expected to play against the Illini.
Devito left the Iowa game with an injury and Artur Sitkowski took over at quarterback. Bielema did not rule out Devito playing on Saturday, but his status is unclear. Marchese also left the Iowa game with an injury.
There's still a long way to go. The Illini visits Nebraska next week, hosts Purdue on Nov. 12 and finishes at Northwestern, not to mention crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State. But a win Saturday will certainly enhance dreams of playing in the Big Ten title game for the first time.
"Winning helps everything go better," Bielema said. "That's why I want to ride this wave as long as high as we possibly can, because it will definitely help us in the future."