Illini fans, the bowl game has been announced.
After an 8-4 season, Illinois will be heading to Tampa to play in the ReliaQuest Bowl (formerly Outback) against Mississippi State, according to Brett McMurphy.
The game is set for Jan. 2, 2023 at 11 a.m. It will be broadcast on ESPN.
In honor of this announcement, let’s take a moment to revisit some key events from what has been the best Illinois football season since 2007.
Outside of the tough Week 1 loss at Indiana, these guys started the season off really strong.
The Illini were facing 10 straight seasons without achieving an undefeated record in non-conference play, but they looked to finally end this horrendous streak this season.
Bret Bielema’s team got off to a good start, running through Wyoming 38-6 in Week 0.
Illinois returned to Champaign after a Week 1 loss in Bloomington to face Virginia. After a 42-14 loss to the Cavaliers the year prior, the Illini came in with a taste for revenge. In the program’s first rematch game of the season, Illinois reversed the roles with a 24-3 win.
Illinois followed the big win by hosting Chattanooga in a Thursday night showdown. Heading into a game that felt very UTSA-esque, the Illini cruised to a 34-0 victory.
This 3-1 start ended multiple droughts for Illinois. The win over Virginia gave the football program its first non-conference Power 5 win since 2011, and the 3-0 non-conference record was also the program’s first undefeated record in non-conference play since that same season.
DOMINANCE IN THE WEST
After the 3-1 start, Illinois entered the true conference season with a very tough four-game stretch ahead, but they did not shy away from it.
Bielema’s team began the stretch by heading to Madison in what was the Illinois head coach’s first time returning there since his tenure with Wisconsin. In a game that the Illini entered as underdogs, they humiliated the Badgers 34-10.
This win gave the program its first win at Camp Randall since 2002, highlighted by the stout Illinois defense holding one of the best running attacks in the nation to two rushing yards (yeah, you read that right).
The big win in Madison rose expectations higher than they had been in years, resulting in a packed Memorial Stadium the following weekend against Iowa.
The game started out with panic, however, as starting QB Tommy DeVito went down with an injury in the first quarter. Backup QB Art Sitkowski came in to manage the rest of the game, and the outstanding defensive performance limited Iowa to only two field goals.
Fabrizio Pinton’s first college start at kicker cannot be forgotten, as he scored all nine Illini points in a very dramatic win — the first against the Hawkeyes since 2008. This win ranked Illinois for the first time since 2011.
Homecoming weekend was up next in Champaign, with newly ranked Illinois hosting Minnesota. Illinois faced an early second-half deficit, but took adversity by the horns and didn’t allow the Gophers to score again, winning 26-14.
Records kept getting shattered by this Illinois squad, as this was the first time beating Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota in the same season since 1983. These wins took the Illini to a division-best 6-1.
The Illini followed these three wins with a dominant win in Lincoln, winning their third straight against Nebraska, 26-9.
They also extended their overall win streak to six games and became the clear front-runner for the Big Ten West at 7-1.
I think you all know where we’re going with this, but the Illini were arguably three calls in their favor away from the season being entirely different.
The loss in Bloomington we mentioned above is where the questionable officiating started.
Illinois WR Brian Hightower appeared to catch a touchdown twice in the same play, but it was called incomplete. After further review, the call of incomplete was upheld, forcing Illinois to settle for a field goal.
THIS WAS RULED INCOMPLETE FOR ILLINOIS...... Took away an incredible catch by Brian Hightower pic.twitter.com/4jcDgJCyIV— @ (@FTBeard7) September 3, 2022
This four-point differential ended up being crucial for the Illini, as they lost 23-20. If changed, Hightower’s would-be touchdown could have been the difference between a win and a loss.
Six exciting wins later, Illinois suffered a surprise loss against Michigan State at home, putting the Big Ten West lead on the line as the team hosted Purdue the following week.
Leading 14-7 late in the first half, Illinois DB Devon Witherspoon made an incredible play on a ball thrown by Purdue QB Aidan O’Connell to pick off a pass. The lockdown coverage and interception were called back, however, as Witherspoon was called for defensive pass interference.
November 12, 2022
How? We still don’t know. Purdue scored a touchdown on the ensuing play, and this seven-point difference was crucial as well, as Purdue beat Illinois 31-24.
And on top of all this, here’s the one that hurt the most.
Coming into Ann Arbor on a two game losing streak and as 17.5-point underdogs, the Illini found themselves desperately clinging onto a 17-16 lead with one minute to go. With a chance to pull off one of the biggest road upsets in program history, the defense needed to make one final stop at midfield.
Michigan faced a 4th and 4, and in the biggest play of the game, QB JJ McCarthy converted it on a pass to RB Isaiah Gash. This conversion eventually led to a field goal with 9 seconds left, giving Michigan the nail-biting win 19-17.
However, on that crucial fourth down play, there was an obvious pick play by Michigan TE Colston Loveland that allowed Gash to get open for the first down.
To all #ILL players, coaches and especially for our fans…. We will work all week in practice to defend this play especially on 4th down #famILLy https://t.co/bJhpShjbcY— Bret Bielema (@BretBielema) November 19, 2022
A play that — according to the NCAA rules — should have been called for offensive pass interference was not, and the Illini lost yet another heartbreaker.
But here’s the deal. We can speculate all we want. We can wish these calls had been made differently, but unfortunately, they weren’t. When the Illini needed it most, they were unable to make necessary plays to win those games.
End of story.
KEEPING THE HAT
This was the cherry on top of it all this season.
Following the three-game skid that essentially took away the chances of Illinois playing in their first Big Ten Championship game, they responded incredibly.
Northwestern was playing for nothing but pride after 10 straight losses, but Illinois made it look like they had no business playing on the same field. Illini nation was reminded of how dominant this defense could be, and standout performances from Sydney Brown and Devon Witherspoon gave the Illini a 41-3 win in Evanston.
This second blowout win for Bielema against the in-state rival in as many years gives him a 71-point advantage (88-17).
Keep in mind that he has done this against a Northwestern team that previously beat Illinois six times in a row.
AN ALL-BIG TEN TEAM
One of the best football seasons for the Illini in the entire 21st century calls for some recognition for the players that made it all possible.
We’d say this tweet speaks for itself.
The most Fighting Illini All-Big Ten honorees in history. #Illini // #HTTO // #famILLy pic.twitter.com/FrSqb0oldh— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) December 1, 2022
BE PROUD FANS
There’s no room to be disappointed here.
Yes, it’s a bummer that the Illini relinquished the Big Ten West title to Purdue and we had to watch them play Michigan in Indy. But let’s be honest, winning eight regular season games — most since 2007 — was nowhere near expected in August.
This season has been nothing short of remarkable for this Illinois football program, and a bowl win would further cement the legacy that these players will leave behind.