Bowl teams win games they are expected to. Bowl teams don’t lose trap games. Bowl teams win at home.
If Illinois wants to prove itself as a bowl team and a Big Ten West contender, the Illini have one task: win a home game against an inferior team.
As Illinois rides a two-game Big Ten winning streak, it also face some expectations. The Illini find themselves in a unique situation, sitting at 4-4 heading into November with a legitimate shot at a bowl game.
“I think as we continue to build our program we need to continue to handle these situations,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “This week we are not going to be an underdog. None of that should affect how we handle that.”
The upcoming game against Rutgers is one that fans circle as the automatic win of the season. After stunning then No. 6 Wisconsin, traveling to West Lafayette and winning a sloppy contest over Purdue, the Rutgers matchup is a must-win.
“This week we’re not going to be an underdog,” Smith said. “None of that should affect how we get up.”
Sure, when you think of a must-win game, you probably don’t think of Illinutgers. But that’s exactly where the team is at with just four games remaining. This Saturday’s contest against Rutgers appears that way — an achievable route to earning a bowl birth.
“As we continue to build a program, we have to be able to handle these situations [as a heavy favorite],” Smith said. “We respect Rutgers. They played their best football last week. We’ve been favorites in the past against them, and they beat us.”
If the Illini were to lose this game, they would need to win two of three at Michigan State, at Iowa or hosting Northwestern while the students are gone. But beating Rutgers at home, extending the winning streak to three and sending the Dads home happy — would also uncover a chance to earn a bowl birth by just winning one game against Michigan State (4-4, 2-3), Iowa (6-2, 3-2), or Northwestern (1-6, 0-5). A feasible task to say the least.
Rutgers has not won a Big Ten game yet and the Illini come into the game as favorites for the first time since the Eastern Michigan game back in September. But as known in the Big Ten, there is no such game as an easy win — just ask Wisconsin.
“We’ve been favorites against [Rutgers] in the past, and they beat us a couple years ago here,” Smith said. “We’re playing a Big Ten team that’s definitely capable of beating us. We need to play our best football.”
Illinois has flipped the page on a 2-4 start, and Smith mentioned that turning the season around was an attitude.
“Life tells you you can’t live in the past,” Smith said. “We knew we had a second half of football coming up. When you have disappointment early, it’s not the end of the game.
“All we’ve accomplished so far is that we have momentum in the second half. We have to ride this momentum all the way through.”
The Illini will attempt to ride that momentum to their third Big Ten victory in a row, and Smith emphasize the impact it’d have.
“To be able to get three Big Ten games would be big for our program right now,” Smith said.
It is up to Illinois to not take Rutgers lightly and simply keep winning, as it may just open the lane to the Illini going bowling.