Nobody will ever really know what Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith talked about when they first met back in 2016 to discuss the head coaching position at the University of Illinois. It was probably something about bringing the football program back to a state of relevancy, getting recruits that don’t belong in the MAC, and winning a bowl game.
Whatever the goals were, the Illini took a substantial step forward Monday afternoon despite coming up short.
In its first bowl game in five years and change, Illinois lost to Cal, 35-20, in the 2019 Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Although the result was not intended, the trip validates a season that included a four-game winning streak, highlighted by historic victories over Wisconsin and Michigan State. Smith’s first trip to a bowl game has helped to put Illinois back on the national map, but Whitman and Lovie both know there is work to be done.
Despite missing top receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe and one of the nation’s best offensive lineman in Doug Kramer, as well as numerous other weapons, the offense had no problem moving the ball early in the game. Stopped inside the 10 on their first possession and having settled for a field goal, the Illini capped their second lengthy drive with Brandon Peters finding Daniel Barker for the five-yard touchdown.
Peters, one of the only Illini with bowl game experience, led the Illinois offense both with his arm and his legs. The graduate transfer from Michigan threw for 273 yards and one touchdown and added a team-high 68 yards on the ground on just eight carries. He played an excellent game — and everything the Illini could’ve asked for when he transferred to Champaign — but an interception after being hit in the fourth was the last straw in any Illinois comeback.
His 16-yard scramble and dive on fourth-and-17 with the Illini down 15 points was a telling display of effort from Peters.
Illinois Football means so much to Brandon Peters that he just flew through the air down by 15 with two minutes left in a lower-tier bowl game for a 6-6 team.— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) December 31, 2019
He is now a legend.
The biggest moment of the first half came just before the break. After punter Blake Hayes pinned the Bears inside their own five-yard line, Cal quarterback Chase Garbers led a long 95-yard drive inside Illinois’ five. On fourth-and-goal, Cal — in its last game with offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin before he becomes the head coach at Cal Poly — converted, taking a 21-13 lead into the locker rooms (after Illinois was able to march swiftly down the field and get another three points).
But the defense was where Illinois struggled. Without linebacker Jake Hansen and defensive back Tony Adams, the Illini were exploited over the middle of the field all day long. The depleted Illini secondary looked especially weak, and the pass rush never really got going. Two first-drive sacks helped, but Garbers took over after that. And while a trademark of this year’s Illinois team was forcing turnovers — key to the Illini getting to six wins — the defense couldn’t get any takeaways in Santa Clara.
Garbers and the Cal air attack was successful in moving the chains and putting points on the board. The Golden Bears’ sophomore threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns. He added a one-yard QB sneak for a touchdown as well.
The Illini couldn’t find an answer for the Cal rushing attack either. Running back Chris Brown Jr. tallied up 120 yards on 20 carries — including a 54-yard scamper that set up the game’s opening touchdown.
Looking toward the future, the Illini will return a large amount of their skill players from this successful season. However, this game marks the ends of the Illini careers of Reggie Corbin and Dele Harding, among others.
Corbin, who led the Illini in rushing in each of the last two seasons, stayed for another year at Illinois with the hopes of getting to and winning a bowl game. Although that goal was not fully completed, Corbin’s fourth quarter touchdown put a finishing touch on what was a serviceable career at Illinois — one that included him passing Illini great Red Grange in rushing yards.
The most frustrating part of the Illini’s final game of the season was in terms of still looking like an undisciplined team, despite having three extra weeks of practices. Illinois suffered several delay of game penalties, including one immediately after a kickoff and another when the Illini were trying to go for it on fourth-and-long. The Illini ended the day with 10 penalties for 89 yards.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Give me a fade?: Illinois’ first offensive possession stalled on third down inside the 10 when the Illini ran a fade to Casey Washington on the outside. Washington was able to get a finger on the ball, but couldn’t do much with it. The Illini settled for a field goal. With the same opportunity on the following drive for Cal, the Golden Bears found their tight end for an easy score.
Homecoming Spoiled: California native Milo Eifler made his presence known early with a sack. However, Eifler was ejected in the fourth quarter from a controversial targeting penalty.
Deal sealed: When it looked like the Illini were mounting a comeback, Peters under threw Navarro on a beautifully ran route, and it was picked off. The interception made the already improbably comeback nearly impossible.
Milo Eifler tossed for targeting because why not? pic.twitter.com/cnOvkfZI5k— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) December 30, 2019
TWEETS OF THE GAME
we'll discuss this in the offseason https://t.co/RCnPMfN5xS— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) December 30, 2019
They doubted us all year, show em we came for business— Bobby Roundtree (@BobbyRoundtr97) December 30, 2019
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Illinois’ first touchdown in a bowl game in five years and four days.
Brandon Peters to Daniel Barker pic.twitter.com/tYRWvcMPQj— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) December 30, 2019
Nobody has perfected the circus catch like Donny Navarro.
Donny Navarro pic.twitter.com/I5Ptuzdr1u— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) December 30, 2019
Stats courtesy of @IlliniStats:
- Junior C Doug Kramer missed the Redbox Bowl, snapping a streak of 27 straight starts.
- Freshmen who played in every game: DL Bryce Barnes, LB Tarique Barnes, DB Devon Witherspoon.
A FINAL NOTE
Thanks for following along for another whole season of football coverage at TCR. It’s a pleasure for our entire beat reporting crew — Tristen Kissack, Stephen Cohn, Anthony Pasquale, Patrick Catezone, Mariah Guzman and Brad Repplinger — to bring you content the past four months. We promise we even have some bigger things coming next year for all of you.
The Redbox Bowl wrapped up Illinois’ 2019 season.
Illinois opens Lovie’s fifth season at the helm on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, against in-state rival FCS Illinois State at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Kickoff is not yet announced.