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Illinois has a pulse again after beating Minnesota

What we learned from an explosive victory at Memorial Stadium.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois’ resounding 55-31 home victory against Minnesota shined like a beacon of hope for a program recently left for dead by many. Here’s what we can take away from the huge win.

The Bush Doctrine

While A.J. Bush has failed to separate himself as the lead man under center for the Illini, one thing is clear, Rod Smith’s 2018 offense is built for the senior transfer. The decisions to start Bush and to receive the opening kickoff seemed synced to the greater overall strategy to take an early lead and grind the Gophers down.

M.J. Rivers is the better pure passer — and potentially the quarterback of the future for the Orange and Blue — but Bush is the better fit this year considering this team’s preference to run block over pass protect, with a stacked backfield that’s miles ahead of the banged-up receiving corps. Certainly Reggie Corbin was the star of the show on Saturday, but Bush added 127 yards on the ground, with two rushing touchdowns, providing a potent secondary threat to Corbin. The 216 passing yards, adding two scores through the air, were a bonus for Bush against a porous Minnesota defense, but served as a reminder that Bush isn’t completely one-dimensional.

Going forward, Bush will still need to avoid costly mistakes, a couple of which nearly tarnished his big Dad’s Day. If the Illini have any chance at bowl eligibility, Bush will need to sustain drives and protect the football against far superior upcoming defensive units. After nine games, though, it’s safe to say that the Bush run-option offense is the only legitimate formula for the 2018 Illini. It’s no coincidence that Bush has started all four victories this season.

Rivers is still the go to guy if/when Illinois falls behind multiple scores and needs to try to claw back through the air. However, as we all know by now, once Illinois is down multiple scores, it’s already too late.

We have a pulse.

The heartbeat of Illini nation has been faint and on the brink of flat-lining in recent weeks. That all changed Saturday, primarily thanks to a video review gone wrong. With Illinois holding a surprise 24-14 lead late in the first half, fortunes were looking even better after Del’Shawn Phillips returned an apparent fumble for a potential nail-in-the-coffin touchdown heading into the break.

However, in its infinite wisdom, the Big Ten officiating crew decided that indisputable evidence supported overturning the call. To make matters worse, Illinois’ sideline displayed a flagrant amount of fun on the play, and was penalized 15 yards for celebrating an illusory touchdown. Minnesota capitalized with a field goal to pull within one score before receiving the second half kick.

This all too familiar, unfortunate turn of events acted as a defibrillator that shocked the Memorial Stadium faithful into a frenzy of life and passion, albeit negative passion directed towards the officials. Regardless, the deafening chorus of boos demonstrated that this fan base still cares deeply about its football. And it’s hard to argue that this outburst of actual concern was lost on the men in blue.

Following the break, the Illini displayed their most dominant 15 minutes of the Lovie Smith era, with a 21-0 third quarter, burying the over-matched Gophers.

If this football program has any chance of sustained success, Illini nation must show up and show out. Recruits take note of home support, and players on the field feed off of fan reaction.

Overcoming apathy may be Lovie’s biggest challenge as Illinois head coach, and thanks to a highly questionable replay review, he now has a live patient craving more from its football program.

Pride (In the name of Lovie)

Going into year three, consensus among those familiar with Illinois football was that tangible improvement was all that was needed to shepherd Lovie safely into a fourth year. The Minnesota game likely represents the improvement required to guarantee his return in 2019 — and with good reason.

Exciting big plays, amounting to 55 points and over 600 yards of total offense, ending in a second Big Ten victory of the season, signaled a turning point in the Lovie era. Sure, the season is far from over, and the odds-makers still probably foresee a 4-8 finish to the 2018 Illini campaign, but momentum has shifted in the right direction.

Adding to the on-field progress, Lovie got a further boost prior to Saturday’s game with the commitment of Moses Okpala. And with Jakai Clark deciding between Illinois and Arizona on Wednesday, Lovie Smith could be staring down a banner calendar week for the program. The improvement may be incremental, painfully slow, and inconsistent, but Saturday’s victory is direct evidence of its existence.

See you in 2019, Coach Lovie.

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