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Illinois really found a way to beat No. 6 Wisconsin

The Illini are maturing as a team before our eyes.

Wisconsin v Illinois Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The main takeaway from this game is that the fanbase, administration, coaching staff, and most importantly the players, finally have a program-defining victory to rally around. The on-field results of the Lovie Smith era had been quite bleak until Illinois’ homecoming victory over the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers, which has resulted in depressed attendance figures and difficult recruiting situations. Those problems don’t vanish after this week, but the Illinois Fighting Illini finally took a major and undeniable step in the right direction with a historic win over the Badgers.

Offensive Takeaways: Strides are Being Taken Across the Board

Brandon Peters successfully led a strong offensive performance against one of the nation’s most elite defenses. Although he still struggled to consistently make the right decisions, he protected the ball and played well enough through the air and with his feet to put the Illini in a position to win. Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown combined for 153 rushing yards on 4.9 and 6.4 yards per carry respectively. Both players are among the conference’s most talented backs, but today they seemed to find another gear.

The offensive line was excellent at opening holes for Corbin and Brown, as they too played with a sense of urgency that we hadn’t seen up to this point. If the Illini can consistently play at a fraction of the level that we saw against Wisconsin, then upcoming opponents like the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Northwestern Wildcats seem particularly vulnerable to the rushing attack of Corbin and Brown.

We also saw the offense take a few steps forward in the passing game as well, as Josh Imatorbhebhe has definitively emerged as Illinois’ No. 1 wide receiver. Imatorbhebhe showcased his possession abilities on a tough touchdown reception toward the end of the game, and also on an earlier reception that was called back for an ineligible blocker downfield.

Donny Navarro had been showing up in the stat sheet in the past few weeks, but he finally burst into the spotlight with an incredible 48-yard touchdown reception against Wisconsin. His speed and hands will be major assets in the weeks ahead, particularly if Ricky Smalling is sidelined for an extended period of time. Peters made some great passes, especially on the two passing touchdowns, but he still needs to keep better awareness in the pocket in blitzing situations.

Defensive Takeaways: Solid Fundamentals and Takeaways are the Keys to Success

The Illinois defense has struggled to play assignment sound football up until this week. Again, that problem won’t go away completely after one game, but we can finally see some clear and undeniable defensive improvement stretching back to the second half against Michigan. The Wisconsin offense still put up 420 yards to Illinois’ 315, while also winning the time-of-possession battle by over 2:1 (40:49 to 19:11). The difference between this game and those preceding it was that the defense would bend, but did not break. Wisconsin would move the ball relatively easily, but then throw an interception, lose a fumble, or miss a field goal when they needed to score. Jake Hansen forced two fumbles, and Tony Adams picked up a pivotal interception late in the game.

Just like the offense, the defense seemed to have a heightened sense of urgency in this game, and played with a tenacity that this squad hadn’t showed to this point. That mentality is best exemplified by the now-legendary shoestring tackle by Devon Witherspoon to save a late Wisconsin touchdown.

We saw a hint of the style of defense that Lovie Smith wants to establish at Illinois during the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, as the Illini generated four takeaways that the defense capitalized upon in that game. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to keep the Huskers at bay long enough to win. Against Wisconsin, the defense did make stops when they needed them and found ways to get off the field. We’ve all been hoping that the defense would figure out how to do that this season, but I’m still in disbelief that it came together against Jonathan Taylor and one of the best offenses in the nation.

Special Teams Takeaway: James McCourt for the Win

McCourt’s monstrous leg is putting him in a position to someday follow in Chase McLaughlin’s footsteps and kick professionally in the NFL. Although his relative inability to hit field goals within 40 yards is somewhat baffling, his accuracy out to 57 yards makes him a critical weapon in tight ballgames. Let’s just try to keep him alive the next time he wins us a game.

Blake Hayes rebounded well following a somewhat lackluster performance against Michigan. His coffin punt in the first quarter was a great return to form, as he booted five total punts for an average of 46.6 yards per punt. With Wisconsin struggling to move the ball at times, the field position gained by Illinois’ excellent punter gave the Illini a key advantage.

All in all, Illini fans should cherish this moment. We all hope that this is a turning point for the program, and that better days are ahead. True, this was Wisconsin’s first road game since week 1 (!) and the Badgers certainly did not appear to be playing their best football. But this was still a major victory over an elite team and program, and one that will hopefully pay dividends in recruiting and in confidence-building for future success later this season and beyond.