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Valentine’s Day 2020: 20 Reasons We Love Illinois

We love you, Illinois.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Roses are red. Illinois is orange and blue. We’re [likely] going back to the NCAA Tournament, and for that Brad Underwood — we love you.

Nothing shows your loved one(s) that you love them more than a surprise. An unexpected gesture of happy shock. Illinois Football did that to us in 2019. Illinois Basketball is continuing to do that in 2019-2020.

Fans do not just support their teams. They love them.

20 Reasons We Love Illinois

1. The sweetest, newest facilities

Champaign has always been an attractive place. It is now even more attractive to prospective athletes compliments of the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center. Massive entryway, brand new locker rooms and team meeting rooms, new training/hydro facilities, a barbershop, a bowling alley and so much more.

Just as love is immeasurable, it is hard to measure just what type of impact these facilities will have on the caliber of football talent at University of Illinois. It is too early right now. Know this — compared to what it was like before and compared to what the rest of the Big Ten teams have — this place is mighty fine.

2. Brandon Peters introduces himself:

First impressions are not necessarily everything in the ways of love. Brandon Peters’ opening game in an Illini uniform against Akron was a convincing statement that said: Illinois fans, I want you to love me. I want you to respect me. I’ll show it to you right here, right now.

Brandon, you had us at “hut hut... HIKE!!”. Three touchdown passes to three different receivers, spreading the love the only way you know how. Another score on the ground. No turnovers. What a way to start the season after months without football.

3. Beating UConn and our love of dogs

We love wins. We love dogs. We love travel. Illinois played the Connecticut Huskies on Sept. 7 on the road, and ultimately, left Rentschler Field with the 31-23 victory. It was not a pretty win.

It did however present one great photo of our Illinois Fighting Illini Cheerleaders, compliments of Jonathan the Husky XIV, the live Siberian Husky doggo mascot of the University of Connecticut Athletics teams. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Beautiful words, lovable losers of the Northeast.

4. The greatest upset in Illini Football history

The word “upset” usually doesn’t jive when talking about “love” — except in a sports context. The day Illinois upset Wisconsin in Champaign, wearing the gray uniforms and upending the 31-point spread will be a time that we all look back on and fondly remember: “Where were you the day the Illini beat the Badgers in 2019?”

...Then tears of joy steam down my face.

5. Sloppy, glorious victory in a mud-soaked Ross-Ade

Love is rainbows and roses. Love is also dirty, muddy and at times gross. Attitude is everything. Will you embrace the mud, or will you be all: “Eww, I don’t want to go in that!”

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Beating Purdue and winning the Cannon back is nice. D-linemen Owen Carney, Seth Coleman and others made it extra nice by slip-sliding their way to a post-victory celebration.

6. The hashtag of the century... Behold

Oh yeah, and Illinois also beat Rutgers 38-10. The halftime score was 10-10 before the Illini came out in the second half with a fury so intense, so focused — only LOViE Smith could have whipped up something like that in the locker room pep talk.

7. Bhebhe and Barker forever in out hearts after ripping out Sparty’s

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Illinois at Michigan State
The play of 2019. We love Josh Bhebhe
Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the biggest red flags (see what I did there) heading into the 2019 football season was who was going to catch passes down the field? Which Illini wide receiver was going to step up? Ricky Smalling is good, sure — but his 2018 numbers: 33 catches for 406 yards and five touchdown receptions was not going to scare any opponent. Blame it on quarterback play and injuries, or maybe just give in and say: “Ricky Smalling would be a nice WR2 or WR3 on a good but not great football team, and certainly not a WR1 on a Big Ten team.”

Enter Josh Imatorbhebhe. Like Ricky Smalling two seasons ago, Bhebhe had 33 catches in 2019. Bhebhe had 634 yards, and his nine receiving touchdowns were good enough for 5th best in the Big Ten. Bhebhe had four catches for 178 yards and two touchdowns – including a massive 4th and long on the final drive of the game against Sparty. Daniel Barker’s touchdown catch in the corner of the endzone, wide open sealed the deal.

Triumph. Bhebhe. One of the best single player performances this Illini fan has ever seen.

8. Lovie Smith: You have an announcement to make?

Dreams do come true.

9. Rallying around Bobby Roundtree

Illinois Football is a family. This past season, the family was hurt and was rallying behind one of its own — defensive end Bobby Roundtree. The outpouring of support, from his teammates to his coaches to Illini Nation was arguably the highlight of what was an overall successful season on the football field.

There is more to life than the game. We’re all wishing you well Bobby, and thank you for the inspiration.

10. Love for the linebackers: Dele Harding & Jake Hansen

NCAA Football: Illinois at Purdue
Dele Harding (No. 9). Tackling machine.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Two special players in the middle of the Illinois defense, fighting tooth and nail for every tackle. When I was a student, J Leman and Brit Miller were stud linebackers. The 2019 Fighting Illini defense was anchored by two exceptional linebackers who had breakout seasons.

Dele Harding led the Big Ten and was second in the entire country in total tackles with 149. The next highest total tackler in the conference was Ben Holt of Purdue, and he had 114. That difference of 35 is eye-popping, and something an NFL scouts will not be able to ignore. Harding had two pick-sixes on the year, leading the conference and the nation in that category as well.

Jake Hansen was a turnover-creating machine in 2019. His seven fumbles forced led the Big Ten and country. Jake Hansen and his production this year under head coach Lovie Smith — a defensive coach who is fine with bending as long as his teams turn the ball over — was a highlight of a memorable season.

11. Coming away from the 2019 Football Season ready for 2020: Will the transfer portal show us some love again?

The college football season happens so fast. You blink and it’s over. All gone. Seniors graduate. Signing Days (both of them) come and go.

It has not been easy supporting a downtrodden team for so many years — one that has experienced more than just losses, but scandal and administrative upheaval. 2019 was a game changer, a program changer. Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Oluwole Betiku Jr. — three transfers who came to Illinois wanting to change the culture and perception of the program did so.

12. Feel the burn. The Kofi Cockburn.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 25 Illinois at Michigan
Illinois has a rim protector in Kofi Cockburn. He’s only 20 years old, and his potential in the Big Ten is sky high.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Love can culminate and manifest itself in the birth of children. Dick Vitale affectionately calls them Diaper Dandies, and Kofi Cockburn — a young man in a grown man’s body, is one of the pride and joys of the 2019-2020 Illinois Basketball team.

He’s won multiple Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. He’s a presence Illinois has lacked since Nnanna Egwu. He loves to be pushed and to be coached. Cockburn’s future is bright.

13. ESPN shoutouts from Scott Van Pelt

The Worldwide Leader in Sports. One of its top anchors. Niiice.

Win or lose, Illini fan or Maryland fan — Big Ten Basketball is lit, and absolutely worth the love on the national stage. Big games on ESPN and FOX and CBS almost everyday. Well done, Big Ten. Well done.

14. Brad Underwood loves his team. You can quote him on that.

15. Kofi and Giorgi: Big men teammates at the heart of Illini Hoops, compliments of BTN’s The Journey

Adjusting to life as a college student in Champaign, especially when not originally from the U.S. can be a tough task for anybody. The Giorgi-Kofi relationship is at the heart of what it means to be a good teammate and a well-rounded human being living in this world.

16. Ayo Dosunmu: the chosen one

Five-star hype from Chicago’s Public League. He was a beloved figure in the City of Broad Shoulders before he even stepped foot on campus in Champaign. Ayo’s improvement this year, and his will to win in the final minutes of a game has meant everything to his basketball team.

He’s practically unguardable in one-on-one isolation situations, and he took advantage of that in a crucial road game at Michigan a few weeks ago. Rise and fire:

17. Smooches for Da’Monte Williams

Nothing expresses love quite like a big smooch.

In all serious, Da’Monte is the quintessential role player — and I think all of us, if we haven’t already, are starting to embrace his strengths (defense, defensive awareness, hard worker) and weaknesses (offensively limited is putting it nicely). Many of Illinois Basketball’s wins this year are losses if Da’Monte Williams is not on the floor. Take that Richard Pitino.

18. A bright future with Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo

Guard your heart, and make sure you have good guards coming in and out of the program. A strong future is everything. Illinois has a top recruiting class coming in Adam Miller from Chicago and Andre Curbelo from New York.

Both of those young players offer a little something different than Ayo Dosunmu (possibly off to the NBA) and Trent Frazier. Brad Underwood’s offense is an uptempo, play four-guards at-a-time system, and it’s hard to picture two better recruits than Miller and Curbelo to step right in and contribute immediately.

19. KAM’S is back, and certainly different than it used to be

A staple in the Champaign-Urbana campustown community, and home of drinking Illini students and alums for decades — KAM’S is BACK in a new location.

Drink blue guys. Grab beer with your friends. Watch Illinois Fighting Illini sports and pour your hearts out as you no longer feel your feet sticking to the ground. “It’s too fancy for KAM’S!” This is the new reality, and it is not so bad.

20. Knowing we’re in this, together

Illinois Basketball is not exactly back to where it was — but considering the sold-out SFC and national hype leading up to the Maryland and Michigan State games this past week, it is fair to say that the program’s relevance is once again at a national level... HELLO ESPN!

To all of our TCR readers, followers on social media, and those who consider themselves part of our community — we thank you. We love you.