Vince Lombardi once said,
Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.
And this team sure as hell is used to losing.
It’s not the actual losing part, but everything around it. The undisciplined play. They chase points instead of smart plays. The “looking ahead instead of catching the ball” dropped passes. The losing habits have all been a part of Illinois football for a while. As fans, we know it all too well.
When Illinois went on its 6-game-win streak in September and October, the bad habits were easy to look past. But when you lose two straight games and give up 54 points in the process, the bad habits that have been pushed deep into the far depths of your mind come out to play.
Illinois was faced with a challenge that it really hadn't faced in the last eight games. It was losing the battle in the trenches and playing from behind. This happened against Minnesota and Nebraska, but Illinois was still playing in character. The team still had that swagger and was winning the battle for 60 minutes a game.
In these last two games, the script was flipped and everyone — the coaching staff, the players, and the fans — was out of character. After congratulating ourselves in the recent success and failing to play the part against Michigan State and Purdue, this is how it looked:
And don’t get me wrong—the attention was well deserved. Since I started following the Illini during my freshman year in 2012, I had never seen more news on the Illini and they had never looked so competent. Bret Bielema had been here before. Ryan Walters had seen the SEC media circuit as a successful DC at Mizzou. This team looked like it could keep the attention from affecting the on-field performance.
But for Barry Lunney and the players, this is the first time they have been thrust into the eyes of the national media. For the first time in a decade and a half — 4 coaches and 16 classes of players later — Illinois was in the limelight.
And it torched them.
Old habits are hard to break and show up unannounced when at wit’s end.
So What Now?
The media is very fickle. They like to judge teams not by the big picture, but by the last few games. Illinois will walk into Ann Arbor with no expectations from anybody except themselves.
The accolades, the attention, and the Good Morning AMerica spotlights are all gone, but the chip on the shoulder, it’s back.
I am all for the chip being back.
For the first eight weeks, Illinois played with a workmanlike mentality. They played like a silent assassin, methodically winning games. It was probably the national attention, the rising poll numbers, and the rising chatter on social media that broke the character of this team.
And all that pressure, the glitz, and the glamor are all gone.
All that’s left is that gritty, tough-on-the-nose, grind-it-out mentality that got them to 7-1. And that's where new habits are formed. It’s not what happened in those losses, but what’s happened after that counts.
Illinois still has a chance at an 8-10 win season. There’s a lot still left to play for. My expectations have not changed and Saturday is a chance to prove everybody wrong.
To redeem itself after a less than stellar start to November, Illinois needs to end by playing a competitive game at the Big House, keeping the HAT in Champaign, and winning a bowl game.
The Illini can then bask in the success of the best season in 15 years and carry that momentum into 2023.