In a month, Illinois turns around their football season & program
CHAMPAIGN – It was on October 12th around 1 PM and hope was at it’s lowest for a program breakthrough.
Before the end of the first half, the Illini were down 28-0 and on the way to their fourth loss in the fourth year of the Lovie Smith era. They’d lost to Eastern Michigan after a 2-0 start, then dropped their first two Big Ten games to Nebraska and Minnesota.
Their defense, while forcing more turnovers, really hadn’t come together to put forth an effort worth their head coach’s reputation. Starting quarterback Brandon Peters was out, but even then, there were only bright spots in the first half of the season.
Remember this was preceded by three difficult rebuilding seasons, many wondered if the school might move on from Smith at the end of November, despite stabilizing the program on a few fronts after the difficult Tim Beckman era. But winning four of their last six games to make the postseason for the first time in five years seemed highly unlikely.
Then something incredible happened. It was almost miraculous.
Illinois reeled off 25-straight points against the Wolverines from the end of the second quarter through the fourth and got within three points. They didn’t have enough to finish the job that day, but it found a way to finally jumpstart the Smith era of the program.
The next week came a monumental moment against No. 6 Wisconsin on a day in which the Illini forced three turnovers and went toe-to-toe with a team that has barely been challenged the first month-and-a-half of the season. Illinois rallied from a nine-point deficit to beat the Badgers 24-23 on a James McCourt last-second field goal, leading to a rare field charging by the fans at Memorial Stadium.
There would be no letdown for Smith’s team in the following weeks against Purdue (24-6) and Rutgers (38-10), scoring three defensive touchdowns in a pair of decisive wins.
Even more shocking was the win over Michigan State this past Saturday, when the Illini set a school record with a 25-point comeback. There were still down by 21 points in the fourth quarter when they scored four touchdowns, with the winner coming on a drive in the final 3:17 of the game.
Peters hit rising receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe on a 4th-and-17 to keep the drive alive, then the quarterback hit Daniel Barker with five seconds left for the game-winning touchdown to give Illinois at 37-34 win.
Smith was hoisted up onto the shoulder of his players after one of the most remarkable months in program history. They’ve qualified for their first bowl game in five years and have their first four-game winning streak since their Big Ten championship season of 2001.
If they win one or both of their last two games, it will be the most wins in a season for the program since the 2007 Rose Bowl season.
Their defense continues to lead the nation in turnovers (26) and defensive touchdowns (6) as they’ve finally mimicked the successful Smith defenses with the Chicago Bears that helped the coach to three NFL playoff appearances along with Super Bowl XLI in 2007.
At this moment a month ago, it would have been hard to believe. But sometimes things click, and do so quickly, and for the Illini it’s started a new chapter of their football history.