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Bret and the Illini are so, so close

The corner has been almost completely turned.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

What an effort by the Illini in Ann Arbor.

Illinois did what very few teams are able to do in college football — they went into the Big House and battled Michigan until the very end.

Unfortunately, they fell just short, 19-17, thanks to a heartbreaking Jake Moody field goal with 9 seconds to play.

As painful as it was to leave empty-handed, this game displayed how far the program has come — and how close they are — to truly breaking through under Bret Bielema.

We saw Illinois lose back-to-back games on its home field. The Big Ten West crown slipped right out of their grasp and their ultimate goals were no longer on track to be met. Turning around the next week and staring down the nation’s 3rd-ranked team? Not a task most teams would handle well.

And it didn’t seem like Illinois would early.

After Michigan marched down the field to go up 7-0 on their first drive, it appeared as if it’d be a long day for the Illini.

From that point forward, the Illini defense allowed just 12 points (4 field goals), 177 passing yards (48% completion), and 124 rushing yards (3.4 yards per carry).

Overall, Illinois held the Wolverines to their lowest point total of the season, handed the country’s best rushing offense its second-lowest rushing total of the season, and made a College Football Playoff hopeful fight until the final whistle on their home field.

Illinois teams of the past weren’t doing that. This one belonged on that field.

The defensive line, led by a huge bounce-back performance by new-dad Johnny Newton, matched up with arguably the best offensive line in college football and didn’t back down. Their physicality had been questioned after uncharacteristic outings against Michigan State and Purdue, and they responded in a big way.

Offensively, Chase Brown continued to build on what has been quite possibly the most special running back season in program history. Michigan came in as the top rushing defense in college football, having yet to allow a 100-yard rusher all season.

Chase Brown went for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Even knowing a loss followed, I’ll be watching this touchdown run on repeat for the next few weeks:

Brown needs just 116 more yards to break Mikel Leshoure’s single-season record for rushing yards at Illinois. I don’t see that being a problem in Evanston next weekend.

Mistakes were made. Conservative play calling in the fourth quarter gave Michigan chances to steal a game they shouldn’t have. Untimely penalties and an inopportune punt shank stopped the Illini from putting away what would’ve been a historic victory for the program.

Even so, there’s very little shame in this loss. As much as it’s going to sting for these players — and especially Bret Bielema, who you could tell really wanted a win after an extremely emotional week — this team made Illini Nation proud and showed how far they’ve come in such little time.

Nobody can deny the giant missed opportunity that this group had. Big Ten championship berths and New Year’s bowl chances don’t come around often for Illinois.

But in just two years, Bret Bielema has turned a program from one that is capable of losing games 63-0 on their home field (not-so-happy anniversary this past week, by the way) to one that competes its tails off against one of college football’s best teams.

Keep that Land of Lincoln trophy in Champaign next week, and this impressive group finishes the regular season 8-4 and completes their first winning Big Ten season since 2007. That’s progress many would’ve never thought possible back in August and it’s clear that this staff can take Illinois to even higher and better places.