The Illinois Fighting Illini are not a football powerhouse, on this we can agree. The program has been mired in mediocrity for seemingly my entire life, with the exception of three or four standout seasons. Sadly, this trend has promptly carried over to the Bret Bielema administration, in which Illinois’ fearless leader (hahahahahaha!) has already experienced a blowout road loss to a Power Five opponent (Virginia) and another G5 program’s signature win (UT-San Antonio).
On the eve of the eve of the Illini’s matchup with the Charlotte 49ers, let’s look back on the last time Illinois actually defeated a Conference USA member.
After Jamal Milan blocked a field goal to preserve a win over Ball State in Week 1, the Illini welcomed the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 9, 2017.
Fans were still optimistic that Lovie Smith, then in his second season in Champaign, could be the guy to flip the fortunes of Illinois football. And as we’d seen so often over the years, Lovie’s team turned defense into offense, this time with a pick-six of WKU’s Mike White late in the first half:
Sometimes a good defense is the best offense.pic.twitter.com/yFzQOEeq69— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) September 10, 2017
That defensive touchdown from Julian Jones proved to be the deciding score, though Illini fans were later treated to this entertaining, acrobatic TD dash from quarterback Chayce Crouch:
We've seen this before. Liftoff from @teccrouch7 into the end zone.pic.twitter.com/cmPU7ntjRe— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) September 10, 2017
Illinois held Western Kentucky to a paltry 6 rushing yards on the evening en route to a 20-7 victory. The Hilltoppers converted just 2-of-12 third down attempts and only possessed the ball for 22 minutes. Future NFLers Del’Shawn Phillips & Nate Hobbs each totaled six tackles, and the late Bobby Roundtree, in only his second game as an Illini, amassed two sacks and a forced fumble.
Unfortunately, this game proved to be the highlight of an otherwise dreadful 2017 campaign. This would be the Illini’s final “W” — Illinois lost its final 10 contests — and the defense would struggle mightily the remainder of the way, surrendering 47 points to South Florida, 45 to Iowa, 35 to Chris Ash’s Rutgers squad, 52 to Ohio State, and 42 to Northwestern (and this wasn’t even as bad as the 2018 season!).
The 2021 Fighting Illini find themselves in a similar position — a win over a kinda-good Group of Five team isn’t going to salvage a disappointing season, but any win is one worth relishing.