It was a beautiful Homecoming weekend in Champaign.
Blue skies, crisp, fall weather, tailgate lots filled to the brim. 54,205 people packed into Memorial Stadium.
They deserved better.
The Illini’s fourth quarter collapse delivered a giant gut punch after what for three quarters felt like the necessary follow-up to their upset victory over Maryland.
All of the momentum that could’ve been had during the bye week, all of the dreaming we could’ve been doing about winning the Big Ten West, all of it was snatched away.
There were many reasons for it, and Illinois simply needs to look in the mirror to find most of them.
In what’s becoming a rather common theme of the last few years, Illinois played not to lose, instead of to win.
On both sides of the ball.
Really, it started on Wisconsin’s final drive of the first half.
The Illini defense had put a big, fat zero on the board up until that point and had held up well in their aggressive man-to-man defense against Wisconsin’s quarterback Braedyn Locke, making his first college start.
Aaron Henry decided to drop into a soft zone to close out the half. Locke picked it apart and the Badgers went 73 yards in 1:37 and slashed the lead in half with a Braelon Allen touchdown.
Illinois choosing to move away from its aggressive style that had gotten them to that point allowed Wisconsin to take the momentum into the locker room and Locke to gain some confidence for the first time all afternoon.
Later, with the Illini in firm control of the game to begin the fourth quarter, the same mentality appeared to come out.
The Illini offense touched the ball twice in the fourth quarter, desperation drive with 27 seconds left aside. Each time, they were content to hand the ball off, put themselves in difficult third downs, and give the ball back to Wisconsin to beat them.
Instead of going for the knockout blow, Illinois was content with giving Wisconsin the opportunity to steal the fight.
And that’s exactly what they did.
The Wisconsin comeback slowly became more and more inevitable because Illinois didn’t put the game away.
In the Bret Bielema era, this was the seventh game that Illinois ended up losing after having the lead at some point in the fourth quarter. For a program that supposedly prides itself on controlling games and high-level defense, that’s a very troubling trend.
“You play the win the game. Hello?!”
Bret Bielema and Co. could stand to hear that every once in a while, because far too often, it feels like the Illini aren’t doing it.
Johnny Newton was ejected for targeting. As soon as he left the field, the entire defense fell apart.
My take on the call itself is this: by rule, it was targeting. I despise the rule and think the type of hit Newton delivered on Wisconsin QB Braedyn Locke is not what the spirit of the rule is supposed to be about.
There was nothing dirty about what he did. And there’s absolutely zero reason a player should be ejected for it.
Regardless of how anybody feels about the call, the defense’s complete meltdown as soon as Newton left the field was inexcusable.
Our very own Noah Cowell pointed out the numbers after the game:
Illinois defense today:— Noah Cowell (@cowell_noah) October 22, 2023
Before Newton’s ejection: 233 yards and 10 points allowed (9 drives)
After Newtons ejection: 140 yards and 15 points allowed (2 drives)
Bielema said post-game that it was the “turning point in the game.” https://t.co/50j5X3HGQL
Obviously, losing an All-American defensive lineman who had been dominating is going to hurt. It shouldn’t lead to an offense — who before its first-half score was on a touchdown drought of 100+ minutes — scoring two of them in the blink of an eye.
Wisconsin was 5-for-5 on third down after Newton was ejected. The Illini had countless chances to get off the field or to put the pressure on the Badgers to keep the game alive and failed on all of them.
A particularly defining play came on 3rd-and-10 with 1:28 to play. Wisconsin decided to run the ball, a thought that doesn’t even cross 90% of coaches’ minds.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo knew that without Newton up the middle, the Illini were toast. He elected to hand the ball to Braelon Allen, and Allen picked up 11 yards.
To add insult to injury, a 300-pound offensive tackle caught the game-winning touchdown on another third down.
It was a total implosion. Illinois needed somebody to step up and make just one play and nobody could do it.
Saturday’s loss felt like the nail in the coffin when it comes to having a “successful” season. A win would’ve opened the door for a multitude of opportunities.
4-4 following wins over Maryland and Wisconsin would’ve been a heck of a way to head into the bye week and out on the recruiting trail given how the season began.
Instead, the Illini will have to bathe in that fourth quarter for an extra week. Instead of trying to carry newfound momentum into the final four games, they’ll look to regroup from devastation.
With a win on Saturday, Illinois would’ve been firmly in Big Ten West contention. Yes, that’s the reality of this beautiful division.
Seven or eight wins would have not only been in play, it would have been the expectation. With Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern remaining Illinois could’ve matched its win total from last season and begun to build the sustained success that people spent all offseason discussing.
Now, it’ll be a climb toward bowl eligibility for Illinois. Six wins will feel like a victory with everything that’s happened.
Don’t get me wrong, back-to-back bowl games is nothing to scoff about for this football program that has accomplished that measly feat one time since 1991.
But this season was supposed to be more than hoping to squeak into bowl eligibility in November.
The Illini have proven the last two weeks that they’re a much better football team than they were in September. They’ve cleaned up a lot of mistakes, they’ve been more physical, and they’ve started to regain their identity.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s loss prevents those developments from having a chance to turn this season into the one we’d all hoped for.