CHAMPAIGN – There was great positivity generated by winning their opening game of the season in their first game with a new coach. But that was short-lived thanks to a rough stretch that immediately followed a Week 0 triumph.
Illinois would lose five of their next six games, including a 24-0 loss to Wisconsin at homecoming on October 9th. At 2-5 after that, it appeared that another rough game was ahead for Bret Bielema’s team after the bye week as they visited No. 7 Penn State on Saturday.
But a wild afternoon in Happy Valley helped change the mood around Illinois football with a stunning upset that few saw coming.
In the longest game in college football history – stretching into nine overtimes thanks to a new format – the Illini upset the Nittany Lions 20-18 to earn the attention of the college football world on Champaign.
It was a bit of a throwback contest in which Illinois had success thanks to rushing and defense, and despite having their scoring struggles push into a number of extra sessions, they were still able to get their third win of the season.
“They keep chopping wood and doing what we’re asking them to do,” said Bielema of the team on Monday. “Emotion is very good on gameday, but what we do on the field is what we’re trying to build our program on.”
The victory was Illinois’ second-in-a-row against a Top Ten opponent, having beaten No. 6 Wisconsin in 2019 in Champaign, which was the last time they faced a team ranked in one of the top ten spots. It was, however, their first win over a Top Ten opponent on the road since their upset of No. 1 Ohio State in 2017.
Because of their effort, the Illini have earned a few national honors, including the team of the week from the Football Writers Association of America.
Chase Brown, who rushed for 223 yards in the victory, was named the Rose Bowl’s Big Ten Player of the Week along with his conference Offensive Player of the Week honor.
Head coach Bret Bielema was also named the Dodd Trophy National Coach of the Week as he picked up his 100th career victory.
With the historic win, wide receiver Casey Washington will have the gloves he caught the game-winning two-point conversion with sent to the College Football Hall of Fame.
While there is celebration of the win, there is still plenty of work to do for the Illini if they hope to qualify for a bowl, which will take a strong finish thanks to the struggles in the first half of the season. Illinois will have to win three of their final four games of the season to qualify as they face Rutgers at home this week, Minnesota and No. 9 Iowa on the road, then Northwestern to finish the season in Champaign.
But at the moment, the team can enjoy a healthy amount of positivity thanks to a historic win in Happy Valley.