Saturday in Iowa City presented the Illini their biggest opportunity of the season.
Win and they’d clinch bowl eligibility. Win and they’d secure their first win at Kinnick Stadium since 1999, a mountain they’ve failed so frequently to climb. Win and they’d remain alive in the Big Ten West race entering the season’s final week, with a chance to reach Indianapolis for the first — and likely only — time.
In an occurrence that has become frustratingly familiar, the Illini let that opportunity slip right through their hands. Possessing the ball with under seven minutes to play, holding a 4-point lead over one of FBS’s worst offenses seemingly should’ve been enough to close out a victory.
Unfortunately for Illinois, a game script that has played out far too often reared its ugly head when it mattered most.
The offense failed to come up with a put-away score, allowing the Hawkeyes a chance to beat them. The defense, in an effort to hold onto a late lead, gave up one back-breaking play that ultimately proved to be the difference. Some questionable game management and indecisiveness on the final drive sunk any hope of more John Paddock magic.
Illinois did what it’s done for most of the 2023 season: compete. Since two uncompetitive losses to Purdue and Nebraska that are still mind-boggling to this day, the Illini have given themselves a chance to win every game. The previous two weeks they were the ones to come away with it in the end. This time, they just didn’t do enough.
Opportunities galore presented themselves in the fourth quarter for Illinois to close out a monstrous victory. They failed to take advantage of any of them and it all culminated in a perfect Iowa storm to steal a victory right out of Illinois’ grasp.
Unfortunately, those are the types of losses that linger. A win dangles in front of your face, but you just can’t quite grasp it. A win that would’ve meant a ton to the program and solidified it on a positive path.
Illinois can’t let this one linger, however. One opportunity has passed it by, but another one still awaits. One that will have a widespread impact on the program not just in the present, but well into the future.
The Illini will welcome Northwestern to Memorial Stadium in Week 13 for a game that will define its season.
The Illini clinch bowl eligibility with a win. While in the grand scheme of things that may seem insignificant, it’s no small feat for Illinois football. It’d mark just the second time the program has played in back-to-back bowl games since 1991.
The keyword when building a program always seems to be momentum. Illinois gained a lot of it last season after finishing 8-5, capping off a breakthrough season with a trip to Tampa for a bowl game. Missing out on the postseason entirely in the year that follows would strip most of that momentum away, while another bowl berth would maintain it and keep the Illini on the right path.
The task won’t be as easy as we thought, either.
Formerly interim — now full-time — Northwestern head coach David Braun has miraculously brought the Wildcats to bowl eligibility after Pat Fitzgerald’s ugly exit in the offseason.
Regardless of the Cats’ surprising success, Illinois can’t let its in-state rival come into its building and end its season. If the Illini want this season to be considered a success, if Bret Bielema wants to remain in the good graces of a hungry fanbase and keep himself on track to carry out his quest for consistency, this opportunity cannot be squandered.
Missing out on beating Iowa, while incredibly disappointing, can be reconciled. It’s what Iowa does. They find a way to beat you in the most frustrating, heart-wrenching way possible right when you think you have them. It’s why they’ve played in a bowl game in 21 of the last 23 seasons and have won eight or more games in 15 of them.
Missing out on a bowl berth after losing a rivalry game though? At home? On Senior Day? That can’t happen. Saturday’s game against Northwestern means so much more than any rivalry, it will help define the Illini’s entire season.
That’s why Illinois can’t let one missed opportunity turn into two.
Flush it. Refocus. Beat Northwestern.
Otherwise, no more opportunities will be left.