The Illinois Fighting Illini fanbase has been forced to endure much more than its fair share of agony in the past few years. If you’re reading this, then you probably know exactly what I mean. But those years of suffering make moments like the victory over Michigan State so much sweeter in ways that fans of other programs simply can’t understand.
Reaching Bowl Eligibility
For those of us that have been with the Fighting Illini through the thick and (mostly) thin over the past few years, earning bowl eligibility on the road against the Michigan State Spartans, via the greatest comeback in program history, is an incredible payoff. As much as the fans have every right to be proud of this moment, the players deserved it so much more. They’ve lived every moment of the tough times, and have come out on the other side much stronger than most of us thought possible.
Tweets like these really hammer the moment home:
Surreal moment. Let’s keep this going pic.twitter.com/w8sOODBICG— Jordyn (@Slaughter66_) November 10, 2019
"We've been blown out too many times, gave up too many times just to lay down and give up. It was a thing of will."@based_nvte, @JuicedUpReg and @LovieSmith on how they came back from 25 down to beat Sparty pic.twitter.com/NpkaqnG1sf— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) November 10, 2019
Getting to six wins this season is crucial for the short- and long-term stability of the program. In the immediate term, it secures Lovie Smith’s job as head coach and sets the program up to make a major leap next season. But in a long-term perspective, the staff now has a bowl season to sell to a once reluctant 2020 class of recruits. By strengthening the 2020 recruiting class, we can ensure that the 2021 team has less of a talent drop off once the current juniors graduate.
The Fine Print
Having more points than your opponent at the end of the game is all that truly matters, and the Illini did exactly that against Michigan State. But how they got there does still matter, and the box score presents some interesting notes that are worth examining in greater detail.
With regards to the offense, Illinois definitively showed that it is not the one-dimensional rushing team that it seemed to be earlier in the year. The Spartans largely shut down both Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, holding them to 29 and 19 yards rushing respectively. Once it became apparent that the Illini were making no headway on the ground, Brandon Peters took to the air and linked up with Josh Imatorbhebhe for two incredible touchdown passes. Imatorbhebhe racked up a total of 178 yards receiving, the most ever by an Illini in a single game against Michigan State, on only four receptions. And of course, Peters also hit Daniel Barker for the dramatic game winner in the closing seconds. With Trevon Sidney and Ricky Smalling limited by injuries, it was also impressive to see seniors Justice Williams and Caleb Reams step up with critical receptions.
Aside from the seemingly backbreaking interception on an underthrown ball in the fourth quarter, Peters played some of his best football against Michigan State, passing for 369 yards and three touchdowns against one interception, all while facing off against one of the most talented defenses in the country.
On defense, Dele Harding continued building on his monstrous season with 14 total tackles, including 1.5 TFLs. But with Jake Hansen injured and Milo Eifler ejected, Illinois needed to lean heavily on backups Dawson DeGroot and Khalan Tolson at the linebacker position. Both players rose to the occasion with 10 and 9 total tackles, respectively. Tolson also added a fumble recovery, a half TFL, and a pass breakup to his performance. This experience for both of the younger linebackers will be valuable next season following Harding’s departure.
Illinois isn’t done yet, but the once daunting challenge of reaching six wins in 2019 has been accomplished. Matchups with the Iowa Hawkeyes and Northwestern Wildcats will provide opportunities for the Illini to improve their bowl position, but the primary goal has been reached.
Success this season must be leveraged into recruiting success this winter, which will be critical to softening the blow of ~30 seniors departing after 2020. But for now, the Illini faithful can breath a well-deserved sigh of relief.