This is for the players who chose to represent the University of Illinois, wearing that Orange and Blue and putting blood, sweat, and tears into having one of the most successful seasons in recent history.
This is for those who continued to play at Memorial Stadium, even when greener pastures opened up in the transfer portal.
This is for those players who took that glimpse past the cornfields surrounding the University of Illinois and chose to come back.
This is for the fans who stuck it out in the blistering sun, the rain, the snow, the win, the 63-0 losses, the last-second field goals, and the week-after-week drives down to Champaign to watch the boys play and do their thing, hoping for a win at Memorial Stadium.
This is for the seniors who played here for 6 years.
We are finally there at the closing quarter of the most successful season that most of us remember.
Now that's weird to say after a brutal loss on Saturday, but that's college football. We aren’t Alabama or Ohio State or Michigan or Georgia. Hell, we aren’t even TCU, LSU, Utah, or Penn State.
Illinois isn’t going to have the chance to compete for the CFP every year. Even having the chance to sniff at an opportunity to do so is something we would have never thought of after losing 63-0 at home against Iowa four years ago.
To even be in the conversation, in my opinion, is damn successful.
Losses happen. Yes, it hurts. But it is what happens after that counts. And Illinois has a chance to right the ship back on its course on Senior Day against Purdue this Saturday.
Started From the Bottom.
It took me 250 words to reach the point of my blog, but the seniors on this team have been through a lot.
And they aren’t done yet.
A lot of these guys were in Lovie’s first real recruiting class in 2017. They will never see a winning record at Illinois. Sitting at 26-40, more than a quarter of their all-time wins came in 2022. And that number will continue to rise.
Much like on the other side of Kirby Ave, there is a set of players that started the battle but never got the chance to win the war. Alex Palczewski, Jamal Woods, Kendall Smith, and Alex Pihlstrom are so important to the building of this program’s culture and their contributions will be felt in the next few classes.
In their first season, the Illini went winless in the Big Ten. This group now has the chance to have more wins in the Big Ten THIS YEAR than in the first three years combined.
These guys came to campus wanting to build a program. They sure damn achieved that goal. Palcho grounded the offensive line from day 1 and Woods, Smith, and Pihlstrom switched positions and worked hard till their number was called.
This kind of grit and workman-like mentality has permeated through the program due to these seniors and many others that have been here for 5 or 6 years. You see it with the younger guys. We had freshmen doing pushups in the first game, Fourth-year sophomore Isaiah Williams excelling in his new role as WR, and the tight ends finally getting their time to shine this year.
It’s all led to a 7-2 record.
Now We Here
Here’s where it gets lost sometimes. In all this success, we, as fans, get butt hurt when our team’s chance at a playoff berth gets ripped out from under us. But that’s just football.
This team has been through a lot. They have been stuck at the bottom of the barrel and they are slowly climbing out of it. There will be slip-ups getting out. To be frank, we just don't have the personnel to get there right away. But that constant progress is visible. It may seem like the team took a few steps back on Saturday, but this team has taken 15 steps ahead on the season.
The offense is miles better than last year and the defense is pretty consistent at playing at an elite level. I told y’all to update your expectations last week and this point still stands. Good teams have bad games. This team is good.
It may not have looked like it, but this team is still in the driving seat to Indy and Saturday was a huge wake-up call. A spot in Indy won’t just be given to Illinois, and these players know they will have to earn every win from this point out. Sure, the buffer is gone, but Illinois still has control of the West.
Illinois is still ranked in the AP Top 25, USA Today Coaches Poll, and could still be ranked in the CFP rankings when it comes out later Tuesday.
Let’s end the home season on a high note, show out for this team and give the team all the support they need to beat the Boilermakers on Saturday.
Writing this has gotten me out of the slump, and hopefully reading this has got you pumped for Saturday.