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Illinois seized a giant opportunity — and may have saved its season

The Illini’s upset victory over Maryland was huge in so many ways.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

First Big Ten win. First Power Five win. First win in nearly a calendar year against an opponent that Illinois was not favored by multiple scores against.

The Illini’s upset victory in College Park on Saturday was desperately needed — not just by the team in its hopes of a successful season — but also by a fanbase that had begun to spiral and by a program that was on the brink of coughing away its newly built momentum.

Everything about it was huge.

To go on the road, as 13.5-point underdogs, coming off back-to-back uncompetitive losses to conference bottom feeders, and find a way to win is the type of moment that can change a season.

Credit goes out to every member of that locker room for drowning out all the noise and negativity and giving this fanbase a reason to be reeled back in.

It wasn’t expected. Nor was it pretty. But man, it feels good.

Against all odds, the Illini found a way to be the better football team across 60 minutes.

Against an explosive Maryland team, too.

Having watched the Illini get laughed off the field against Purdue and Nebraska, I can’t say I expected this group to finally find answers against the Terps, a team who’d won its first five games in largely dominant fashion and given Ohio State a scare in Columbus just a week prior.

They proved me and practically the entire nation wrong on Saturday.

The biggest story was the ability of the Illini offense to come up with key drives at the right times. Barry Lunney’s unit had done nearly everything wrong during the first half of the season but on Saturday, they did just enough right to win.

The Illini’s first drive set the tone for the team’s competitive effort, going for 85 yards and ending in a Pat Bryant 44-yard touchdown catch from Luke Altmyer.

Right as control of the game appeared to be slipping away after a prolonged period of struggle, the offense “double-dipped” as Bret Bielema likes to say. Kaden Feagin found the endzone on a 4th-and-1 to close the first half and the offense came out of the locker room and used a 59-yard drive to put another seven on the board.

After Maryland erased a 10-point deficit to tie the game with 1:31 remaining, Illinois put together its most important drive of the 2023 season thus far. Casey Washington hauled in a 29-yard reception on the sideline, Aidan Laughery and Luke Altmyer picked up chunks of yardage, and the Illini positioned themselves well within Caleb Griffin’s range to walk off with a victory.

By no means was it a perfect day. Nobody will tell you the offense is fixed. But it was a (mostly) clean, clutch effort that gave Illinois a chance to win, something that could be said on very few occasions across the season’s first six games.

Defensively, Illinois did about as well as you could ask for against an explosive Maryland offense.

Taulia Tagovailoa got his — 266 yards and two touchdowns — but aside from one long touchdown, the Illini limited the Terps’ downfield attack and forced one of the conference’s top offenses to come up empty on just enough occasions.

With Keith Randolph left back in Champaign to recover from injury, Seth Coleman was the guy who stepped up and made his presence felt. He became the first Illini player with 3.0 sacks in a game since Owen Carney in 2020, taking advantages of aggressive double teams on Johnny Newton and winning his one-on-one matchups for a handful of game-changing plays.

On a cold, rainy afternoon on the east coast, the Illini needed to get back to the identity of a Bret Bielema-coached team. They did that, holding the Terps to 93 yards rushing and running for 131 of their own, led by 84 from Kaden Feagin who all but cemented himself as the running back of the future.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In what felt awfully similar to the Penn State game in 2021, the Illini found a way to rally together, put their frustrations behind them, and pull off a stunner. Can it be the start of a second half turnaround?

It feels like the type of win that can kickstart a run. Illinois will still have to prove it, however.

We’ll find out very quickly whether Saturday was just a one-off in a largely miserable season or rather a sign of what’s to come.

One game can’t be taken as gospel. After all, we watched six games that told a very different story. What it can be is a springboard towards a program-wide turnaround. Sometimes, all you need is one, and the rest will start pouring in.

Last week, I wrote this in my column:

Coming off an 8-win season and the program’s first real momentum in 15 years, this was supposed to be a year that continued to build it and began a line of sustained success under a head coach that preaches consistency and dependability.

That momentum is utterly and completely gone. A year later, Illinois is right back among the Big Ten’s bottom feeders — a bottom that’s only getting deeper as the conference expands.

All of a sudden, that momentum could be salvaged. Illinois can avoid sinking back to the bottom. One win doesn’t do that, though. Turning one win into four or five does.

Wisconsin enters Champaign looking very beatable, coming off a 15-6 loss to an Iowa team that saw its quarterback throw for 37 yards. Yes, I typed that correctly. 37 yards passing and a two-possession victory. Only Iowa.

Theoretically, Illinois should have an opportunity to win every game remaining on its schedule. The Big Ten West is that bad.

Saturday marked the seizing of a giant opportunity. Moving forward, there’s five more opportunities that could prove equal in magnitude, and all appear easier, at least on paper, than the hill the Illini just climbed.

Illinois needs to prove that its win against Maryland was more indicative of who it truly is than much of what we saw in the season’s first half.

College sports is the best for a reason. Bad teams find ways to beat good teams all the time. Is Illinois still a bad team, or is it finally beginning to showcase its true ability?

That’s the question that must be answered.