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Happy but not satisfied, a hungry Illinois team preps for the Redbox Bowl

For the first time since 2014, Illinois is practicing in December.

Rutgers v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN, IL. — “We’re not going to apologize for being 2-4 and making a run,” Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said at Illinois’ bowl press conference on Sunday evening. “We are going to be excited for where we are now.”

The Illini will travel to Santa Clara, California to take on the California Golden Bears in a Redbox Bowl matchup on Dec. 30 at Levi Stadium.

The 6-6 Illini are one of nine Big Ten teams that finished the season bowl eligible — and for the first time since 2014 the Illini will represent the Big Ten in a bowl game.

For Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, this is the first time he will bring a team to a bowl game.

“The goal is to be Big Ten Champs one day,” Smith said. “In the meantime, we’re going to keep building. It’s a process. I think we can all say we’ve made progress.”

Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman called the Illini’s stunning upset over then No. 6 Wisconsin and the historic comeback over Michigan State two of the most “transcendent” wins in program history.

While Whitman and the Illini are pleased to be in the postseason and playing a 13th game, he made it very clear that there is still work to do.

“It’s been rewarding for me, but especially for these guys,” Whitman said. “There’s a difference between being happy and satisfied. Are we happy? Yeah. Are we satisfied? Absolutely not.”

As for the Illini’s opponent, Cal finished the season 7-5, winning four of its nine games in the Pac-12. The Golden Bears have a pretty balanced attack offensively and average about 20 points per game.

While Cal does essentially have a home game in the matchup, Whitman made it clear that the Illini have a very strong alumni base in California.

“We expect a nice turnout,” Whitman said. He added that outside of Chicago, the Bay Area is home to one of the highest percentages of Illini alumni.

Before addressing Cal, Smith was quick to give a shoutout to his senior class.

“This is going to be a great experience for our program. To reward those seniors, I’m excited for it,” Smith said. “We get a chance to practice more. This past week was all about recruiting. This week we’ll start prepping for Cal.”

As for Saturday’s Big Ten Championship that saw a team the Illini beat (Wisconsin) play an undefeated College Football Playoff team (Ohio State) tough, Smith kept his focus at hand.

“Our program will eventually get there,” Smith said.