CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - When asked about Illinois’ current situation compared to his own in the 1960s, legendary linebacker Dick Butkus offered a bit of advice for the Illini players: “You can get your ass beat, but you can let them know, ‘That’s a hell of a team.’”
Well, they definitely got their asses beat, but they never gave up.
“We chose to fight, fight harder,” said head coach Lovie Smith.
Down 28-0 in the second quarter to No. 16 Michigan on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the Illini did not quit. Instead they battled back to being down 28-25 before allowing two touchdowns to ice the game.
The Illini ultimately lost a tight one to No. 16 Michigan, 42-25, in a game where the Illini showed a lot of heart.
“When you’re down 28 to zero and you come back, that has to say an awful lot,” Smith said. “(I’m) proud of how the team played (the third quarter). We need to do that more consistently.”
Smith even added that he believes the Illini can take what happened during the comeback and turn it into a positive second half of the season.
“What we changed in the third quarter, is what I think we can do with our football season,” Smith said.
Late in the first half, the Illini finally got on the board, cutting into a then-28-0 deficit with Matt Robinson’s first-career passing touchdown to Josh Imatorbhebhe.
“I thought (Matt Robinson) stepped up to the occasion,” Imatorbhebhe said. “For a first start against one of the top 25 teams in the nation, I don’t think that’s too bad.
“I was proud of how he competed and how he battled back.”
Bhebhe ended the day with five catches for 102 yards and the touchdown that got the scoring going.
And once it got going, it did not stop for a while.
The Illini went on a 25-0 run, narrowing the deficit to three points, behind James McCourt’s 50-yard boot, Matt Robinson’s QB sneak for a score and Dre Brown’s touchdown and two-point conversion.
The fact that Illinois did it without starter Brandon Peters made the run that much more impressive. Many pegged this game as the former Wolverine’s revenge game, but it was nothing of the sort. Peters was in concussion protocol and the QB combo of Matt Robinson and Isaiah Williams collectively tried to fill his shoes.
Robinson emerged as the go-to guy for Illinois, leading a two-minute drive late in the first half and adding a QB sneak early in the third quarter. Robinson threw for 192 yards and scrambled for a few first downs. Robinson was the catalyst in what was a gutsy comeback effort for the Illini, despite a pair of fumbles that essentially ended the Illini’s comeback try.
“As we talk about being down 28-0,” Smith said, “Matt, I thought was poised, composed, made plays when he needed too.”
Robinson mentioned that his performance serves as a bit of a boost moving forward.
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Robinson said. “Getting that experience is definitely gonna help down the road.”
A few players said Robinson adds a “juice” to the offense, and the redshirt-freshman gave his take on that situation as well.
“I try to bring the energy and try to get the guys going,” Robinson said.
Aside from Robinson, Williams also got some snaps under center but struggled to get going. The freshman did not complete a pass in four tries and added only four yards on the ground.
“We wanted to get him involved,” Smith said. “The reason why he didn’t play more was because he had an injury late.”
Speaking of struggling, the Illini defense struggled against the run again. Michigan had well over 200 yards on the ground before the end of the first half. The Wolverines finished with 295 yards rushing, led by Hassan Haskin’s 125 yards and Zach Charbonnet’s 116.
The Illini stepped their game up during their failed comeback on both sides of the ball, playing a much stingier defense, which included a pair of forced fumbles — the latter was Jake Hansen’s fifth of the year.
“We just got to know that they’re a big team, but they put their pants on like we do, they bleed just like we do, so we can play with anyone,” Hansen said.
But what did he think the difference with the defense that only gave up 14 points on short fields following turnovers was in the second half?
“We built some confidence...that second half, we were pretty stout. We did a solid job in the second half, you can’t ask for too much more than that.”
Illinois’ defense as a whole surrendered at least 290 rushing yards and more than 40 points for the third game in a row.
Michigan stopped the bleeding with 8:57 left in the fourth quarter when Shea Patterson threw for his third touchdown of the game. Patterson ended the day with 194 yards to go along with his three scores, and he added a touchdown on the ground to put the Illini away.
Although the Wolverines gave up 25 straight points, they recovered by forcing back-to-back turnovers to ice the game.
Aside from the takeaways, Michigan’s highly ranked defense shut down the Illini’s run game. Reggie Corbin was successfully bottled up for the second straight week, rushing for just 14 yards on nine carries.
In what was ultimately an entertaining comeback attempt, what sticks out is the fourth straight tally in the ‘L’ column.
But the Illini don’t deny that they are nearing improvement.
“I feel like we’ve been so close,” Imatorbhebhe said. “If we were able to overcome that inertia as a team, I don’t know how, but that’s when we start to really be a contender.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
- STRIP CITY- The Illini defense was able to force turnovers despite the game’s final score. Stanley Green forced and recovered a fumble in the second quarter. In the fourth, Jake Hansen forced his fifth fumble of the year and it set Illinois up to make it a one possession game.
- HOLD ME TIGHT- On third and goal, Matt Robinson’s pass was nearly picked off. Instead, Michigan was called for defensive holding giving the Illini first and goal. The Illini scored a few plays later on a Robinson QB sneak.
- FOURTH AND GO- It looked like the Illini had forced Michigan into a field goal and would get the ball back with a chance to take the lead in the fourth. Instead, Michigan went for it on fourth down and Shea Patterson picked up the first down, and later threw his third touchdown pass of the day. That score made it a two possession game and Michigan tacked on even more after that.
- PENALTY PARTY-The Illini squandered a promising first quarter drive after a false start and an intentional grounding penalty knocked them out of field goal range, and that was just the beginning of the penalty train. The most penalized team in the Big Ten struck again. This week the Illini had 10 penalties that accounted for 95 yards.
“That’s not something we’ve done a lot of,” Smith said. “I’m gonna say it’s a one time thing and we’ll clean it up for next week.”
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
It’s beautiful... & terrifying at the same time.— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) October 11, 2019
Congrats to the legendary Dick Butkus. https://t.co/MFApVvcVpW
Dick Butkus is a national treasure.— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 11, 2019
Here are some of the @IlliniFootball and @ChicagoBears Hall of Famer's best quotes from Friday's press conference before his statue dedication at Illinois.
(With some bleeps included) pic.twitter.com/507vN5aDk8
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
TWEET OF THE GAME
HE SAID IT
"Shit I had fun knocking the shit out of people"— Barstool Chicago (@barstoolchicago) October 11, 2019
- Dick Butkus pic.twitter.com/a781o3MEc8
The gauntlet continues next week for Illinois as they host No. 8 Wisconsin at 11 a.m. on Big Ten Network. The game is Illinois’ homecoming contest. With Peters on the verge of returning from a concussion and the team finding a groove with Robinson, the Illini have an interesting decision to make regarding the quarterback moving forward.