Illinois Basketball is doing some pretty serious work right now, and it’s been a blast to watch. The Illini are in rare form not seen for many years. But as enjoyable as this has been, I’ll always be a football guy, and I’m not ready to let go of Illinois Football season yet!
To hold on a little longer, I’ve assembled a panel of eight staff to rank the Illini wins by how awesome they were. Let’s see what we came up with!
#6: Illinois 31, UConn 23
Full disclosure: this originally started out as a poll ranking every regular season game 1-12. This game came out 8th out of 12, which means there were two Illini losses that we enjoyed more than this win.
Anyway, a Brandon Peters pick-six kicked off the scoring in this game against a UConn program that had declared its intent to transition to FCS to save money. The eventual rally moved this into Fighting Illini Embarrassing Win territory, waking up the echoes of last year’s game against Kent State, 2017’s win against Ball State, most of the 2014 non-conference, the 2013 Southern Illinois game...There’s a history of this kind of thing. This one was a little more palatable than those due to being on the road, but this evaporated most of the good feelings brought on by the first game of the year and put everyone on edge.
#5: Illinois 38, Rutgers 10
I attended this game, and I personally think it should have been a little higher just for the cathartic feeling of blowing out a Big Ten conference opponent at home. However, it didn’t feel like a blowout until uncomfortably late in the game, as Johnny Langan kept the Illini defense on the field by picking up first down after first down on the ground. Nevertheless, this game ended up at #5 on the master list, narrowly edging out the loss to Iowa for the privilege of being our fifth favorite.
Any Big Ten win is enjoyable, but this one made Illini fans really uneasy for a long time. As Illinois failed to distinguish themselves, the echoes of the 2010 Minnesota game reverberated through Memorial Stadium. That, too, was a November game that saw the Illini in position to take a big step towards a bowl bid at home against a team that had fired its coach. The difference this time was the ball-hawking defense, which scored two touchdowns in the second half to put the game out of reach. Dele Harding’s long pick-six was the first time I breathed easy that afternoon.
#4: Illinois 42, Akron 3
The unbridled glee over this game aged somewhat poorly, but at the time, it sure was a refreshing change of pace to see the Fighting Illini dominate a non-conference opponent that had knocked off Northwestern Wildcats the year prior. This game was so comfortable, I actually stopped watching in the fourth quarter. Akron couldn’t move the ball and Illinois was just shoving them around on the line of scrimmage.
Akron would end up being far and away the worst opponent the Illini would face, but a dominating win is a dominating win.
#3: Illinois 24, Purdue 6
There was a significant gap from 4 to 3 because this win needed no qualifiers to explain why it was so fun to watch. After all the doubts about in-game coaching, Illinois brought a superior strategy for the rainy conditions and executed it. In the monsoon, the game was fundamentally over when Illinois went up 17-0 early in the first half as Purdue continued to try to pass.
This game was dominated by Blake Hayes, who punted to the 1-yard line twice and also fielded a bad snap as though it were dry and he were fielding with a baseball glove. Brandon Peters threw only seven passes in the game as Dre Brown did most of the work. The first explosive moment of triumph, though, came after Hayes pinned Purdue at its own 1 in the first quarter and Nate Hobbs scored on a short pick-six. Sure, the flow of the game was dictated by the weather, but Illinois took back the Cannon for the first time since 2015 while evening their record at 4-4.
#2: Illinois 37, Michigan State 34
More disclosure: I only had seven votes, so my dog voted to make a nice round number of 8. This was her favorite game, as the winning touchdown was scored by her favorite player, Daniel Barker. This was also the greatest sports event I’ve ever attended. If you want my story, go here and take a listen:
As for the team’s story, they entered East Lansing 5-4 on a three-game winning streak, but quickly found themselves down 28-3 as Brian Lewerke and Elijah Collins ran through the depleted second level (missing an injured Jake Hansen and an ejected Milo Eifler).
The team never gave up, scoring a long touchdown just before the half and making a goal line stand that seemed trivial at the time with the score 28-10, but proved decisive in the end. As Spartans fans headed for the exits to beat traffic, assuming a comfortable win, Josh Imatorbhebhe rook a pass 80 yards to cut the lead to 31-17. Improbable things continued to happen, from Sydney Brown’s 75-yard pick-six to Caleb Reams’ circus catch to a 4th and 16 completion to Bhebhe. Daniel Barker’s 5-yard touchdown sent the Illini to their first bowl game since 2014, and it would take a legendary, magical game to top this one for the #1 spot...
#1: Illinois 24, #6 Wisconsin 23
You knew it had to be this game. Dead in the water, the 2-4 Fighting Illini took the field as 31-point underdogs at their own Homecoming game, certain to be dominated.
They never for one moment believed that.
The defense yielded yardage to Jonathan Taylor and completions to Jack Coan, but kept the Badgers from opening up a lead bigger than 13. Though Wisconsin led the whole time, turnovers stopped the Badgers from pulling away and big plays from Reggie Corbin and Donny Navarro kept them within striking distance. A heroic interception by Tony Adams set up a drive that put James McCourt in position to drill the game-winning field goal.
Eight years after last defeating a ranked opponent, the Fighting Illini proved, for the first time in the 3.5 years of Lovie Smith’s tenure, that they were a team capable of competing in the Big Ten. To say Wisconsin would end up in the Rose Bowl would still be underselling how they were perceived at kickoff of this game. It had shut out four of its six opponents and utterly humiliated Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines. The Badgers were seen as a real threat to Ohio State, a nationally elite team far beyond the reach of the lowly Fighting Illini.
Not for one solitary second did Lovie’s boys ever believe that to be true.
This is likely the game of the decade, and I’ll never forget the young men that breathed new life into the Illini faithful by delivering this moment.