We’re going bowling for the first time since 2014. It’s the shot heard ‘round Champaign-Urbana. This is uncharted territory for Lovie Smith and the 100 or so players on the Illinois Fighting Illini roster.
Some complain that there are too many bowls, that it rewards mediocrity. That is what has been so frustrating when it comes to being an Illinois Football fan: It shouldn’t be that hard to win six games and qualify for a bowl game.
This is all for the players. It is a travel and experience reward for all of the hard work and long hours they put in year-round to make the program a success. The seniors especially, and really everyone involved puts in as much work and effort as the teams that win eight, nine and ten plus games.
Here’s a look at the last five Redbox Bowls, formerly known as the Foster Farms Bowl, formerly known as the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, formerly known as the Emerald Bowl:
2018 Redbox Bowl — Oregon 7, Michigan State 6
If you missed this game, no one would be shocked. For one it was in the afternoon on New Years Eve. For another, it featured just one touchdown and woeful offense on both sides of the ball. NFL prospect Justin Herbert threw the game’s only touchdown pass.
For Oregon: It was Mario Cristobal’s first season and first bowl appearance as Oregon head coach. The bowl game itself was bad, but a win’s a win even if it does not particularly matter. The Ducks would finish the year with the country’s 7th best recruiting class heading into 2019, and Pac-12’s best class heading into the 2019 season by a mile.
For MSU: Michigan State’s offense outgained the Ducks in this game by over 120 yards. Brian Lewerke would go onto have a better 2019 than 2018, but overall his NFL stock has plummeted while Herbert’s has skyrocketed. Sparty’s offensive struggles in this game would continue well into the 2019 season.
2017 Foster Farms Bowl — Purdue 38, Arizona 35
A high scoring game featuring nine touchdown passes and two interceptions, this one came down the final minutes, when at the 1:44 Purdue Boilermakers quarterback Elijah Sindelar found wide receiver Anthony Mahoungou for the 38-yard score.
For Purdue: Jeff Brohm’s first season at Purdue was always going to be a challenge, and the fact that he led his team to seven wins (including this bowl victory, Purdue’s first since 2011) proved that this head coach was for real and not to be reckoned with... once and especially after he got more talent on the field in West Lafayette. This victory helped springboard an overhaul in recruiting and helped establish Purdue as a non-cellar dweller in the Big Ten the following year.
For Arizona: The final game coached by Rich Rodriguez at Arizona before the shit hit the fan, and really the last game we saw quarterback Khalil Tate do some dazzling things on the football field. I predicted Khalil Tate would win the Heisman Trophy in 2018 the year following this game, and that remains one of my most embarrassing predictions in my tenure at TCR. Tate would never be the same, not even close.
2016 Foster Farms Bowl — Utah 26, Indiana 24
For Utah: Coming into this game, the Utes were the much better team with the better record. Utah was favored by eight points, and the MVP of the game was none other than senior Utes star running back Joe Williams. Williams had 222 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, capping off a season to remember: 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. The Utes would end up taking a step back in 2017 before going on to win the Pac-12 South in 2018 and 2019. Head coach Kyle Whittingham remains one of the more underrated coaches in college football.
For Indiana: The Hoosiers put up a great fight in the midst of some serious turmoil leading up to this game. Then head coach Kevin Wilson abruptly resigned from his post four weeks before the start of this game, and defensive coordinator Tom Allen’s first game ever as a head coach came during this Foster Farms Bowl, and it was a big one for the present and future of Indiana Football. Allen’s done a great job since the Foster Farms Bowl, and there’s no doubt the talent and respectability of Indiana has been on the rise under his tutelage.
2015 Foster Farms Bowl — Nebraska 37, UCLA 29
The setup for the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl was bizarre. Nebraska had seven regular season losses (including one to Illinois!) and still managed to qualify for a bowl game, all because there were not enough 6-win teams to fill all 80 bowl game slots. Nebraska got the bowl nod over several other 5-win teams because of their APR score — a win for Big Ten academics if you choose to look at it that way.
For Nebraska: Nebraska took advantage of their perhaps not-so-deserving bowl game and beat a Pac-12 foe in Pac-12 territory. Nebraska won this game by out-Big Ten-ing a west coast team — the Cornhuskers had three different players score rushing touchdowns on a total of 326 rushing yards. Nebraska had 500 total yards of offense in this game and junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr was efficient and did not throw any interceptions. Things were looking up for Mike Riley after his first season because of this win, and the Cornhuskers had a 9-win 2016, but a 4-8 2017 season would spell doom for the former Oregon State Beavers head coach in Lincoln.
For UCLA: This was back in quarterback Josh Rosen’s first collegiate season, and even though he threw 11 interceptions on the year (including two in the Foster Farms Bowl), it was clear his talent and hype was must-watch television. He threw a beautiful ball and he was surrounded by some talent too — running back Paul Perkins was one of the one of the top running backs in the Pac-12 Conference. The Bruins would finish the year 8-5, and it’s crazy to think UCLA has not had a winning season since.
2014 Foster Farms Bowl — Stanford 45, Maryland 21
This was the last year Illinois went bowling, when the Illini got clobbered by Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Of the five games listed here, this one had the best attendance, likely because this game was played a close 13 miles away from the center of Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto. This was the first meeting between Maryland and Stanford.
For Maryland: Not a whole lot was expected of Maryland in their first season as members of the Big Ten Conference. The Terps would finish season 7-6 and went 4-4 in conference play. Maryland was in a ton of close games — six of them were decided by seven points or less. In this game, Maryland was pretty abysmal on offense, accumulating just 222 yards of total offense. Star receiver (and fantasy football stud) Stefon Diggs showed out in his last game — catching 10 balls for 138 yards.
For Stanford: Ground and pound is the game Stanford likes to play — and this football game was no different as Stanford dominated the time of possession. The Cardinal had almost as many rush yards (206) as Maryland had total yards (222). Christian McCaffrey was a true freshman and had yet to really break out, though this game would be an omen for what was to come. McCaffrey finished with 57 yards on just seven rush attempts and also returned four punts for 81 yards. Stanford junior quarterback Kevin Hogan was excellent, completing 14 of 20 passes for 189 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Another Note About Levi’s Stadium
There’s a good chance you already know this, but a major slight against this stadium is the fact that it’s nowhere near downtown San Francisco. In fact, the stadium is 40 miles away from SF’s downtown — and that’s before even thinking about traffic, of which there’s plenty. San Jose (which is actually a larger city than San Francisco and Oakland) is just 8.5 miles away from Levi’s Stadium.
Airports: SFO (San Francisco International Airport) and OAK (Oakland International Airport) are 30 and 32 miles away from the stadium, respectively. SJC (San Jose International Airport) is just six miles away from Levi’s Stadium.
Long Story Short: If you plan on going and making San Francisco part of your trip, make rental car and lodging arrangements to accommodate this distance.