Now that the dust has settled and everyone’s collective heart rate has returned to at least a “normal” level, there’s one thing we need to talk about regarding THIS Illini team. It’s something that I know most Illinois football fans have been asking for since the pre-Beckman era, and something that I haven’t seen anyone else mention yet. It’s not a bowl game, although we can go on and on about that for the next week since the Illini won’t be taking the field on Saturday. Lord knows we’ve seen plenty of talk about that.
The “thing” we need to address is identity. Not just the identity of this team, but the identity of this program. Allow me to explain...
If you’re familiar with the Illinois football saga, legend tells of a team that once was the cornerstone of college football tradition. A team that had Big Ten Championships and National Titles to it’s name, and a team that Dick Butkus described as, “a team that would come after you.” Life as an Illinois football fan was pretty good.
Time passed, things changed, coaches were fired/hired/fired, and eventually this team with such a strong identity faded into the national noise of the NCAA and Division-I football. Sure, people would associate Illinois football with the “glory days” but there was nothing recent in the way of consistency that made people appreciate the program for what it could be. If nothing else, people would look at Illinois as the doormat of the Big Ten with a head coach that made a public fool of himself (this is still my favorite radio clip of all time):
The program was lost without a true identity. Newly hired athletic director Josh Whitman hired in former Chicago Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith to turn the program around, a coach coming off a 26-28 stretch in the NFL without seeing any college coaching experience since a DB’s position in 1995 at Ohio State. Surely, this was an experiment from Whitman to see if the answer to the Illinois drought lied within the empty space of a program identity. Could Lovie establish ANYTHING in Champaign?
11 wins and 29 losses later (4-26 in conference), it had seemed like the answer was “no”.
Illinois was allowing just over 41 points and 550 yards per game, and was quickly headed down the path of yet another 4 win or less season. After getting out-played and out-coached in Minneapolis and falling behind 28-0 to the Michigan Wolverines at home, it looked like the experiment had not worked.
But then, something happened.
The Illini would tally 25 consecutive points in the 3rd and 4th quarters against the Wolverines on National Television to make a game out of what looked to be a complete drubbing. Then, Illinois pulled together sheer will and some luck to earn the once-in-a-while victory over Wisconsin (we know this as the “holy crap they pulled that off” win. See Nebraska in ‘15, at Penn State in ‘10, Michigan in ‘09, etc). Sure it was nice, but was it for real?
Cut to the Purdue game and a dominant performance in terrible conditions, followed by a defensive surge against Rutgers at home a week later, and suddenly it looked like Illinois might be legit. If ONLY they could perform on the road against a beatable Michigan State team...
Standing on the Illini sideline down 28-3, I heard coaches tell players, “This is not over. One play at a time. We can do this.” Followed by “let’s show them what we’re all about. Show them we’ve got that fight” during the next series. Then it dawned on me...
The goal of the Lovie Smith experiment was about re-establishing an identity, and never just about wins and losses.
Y'all...the difference between our sideline vs Minnesota and our sideline tonight is a complete 180.— Brad Repplinger (@TCRBrad) November 9, 2019
This team believes.
Think back to that Michigan game for a minute. Josh Whitman could have easily made the call that Lovie’s scheme was not working, and that Illinois would need to look for the next system to help bring them out of the cellar of the Big Ten West. I was thinking about it, fans were calling for it, and it was all 100% justified. Down 28-0, the players could have even checked out mentally and surrendered any waking chance at possibly getting back into that game...let alone the season.
25 straight points later, the University of Illinois football program showed the “fight” they have been trying to establish this whole time.
That “fight” is what got them over the hump against Wisconsin, through the rain and mud at Purdue, out of a 10-10 tie at halftime with Rutgers, and to ultimately what would become the biggest comeback in school history last night against the Spartans. We’re not just talking about something this year’s team has, but something that has rooted itself into the new identity of Illinois football.
Soak it all in. Winning in East Lansing last night didn’t just give Illinois it’s first bowl birth since 2014. It was a true coronation and indication that the fight is officially back in the Fighting Illini.