CHAMPAIGN – In the best of scenarios at the halfway point of the 2019 season, the hope was that they could enter their final game of the year against their in-state rival with the hope of postseason eligibility.
Even that seemed like a stretch when Illinois was 2-4 on the season with still a number of strong opponents on their schedule.
Things turned around quickly for the Illini following their stunning win over then No. 6 Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium on October 19th. They won their next three games after that and in the process clinched their first bowl berth since the 2014 season.
Because of that, Lovie Smith brings his team into their final game against the Wildcats looking for a win to improve their bowl destination instead of qualifying for one. But there is still that opportunity for the Illini to knock off Northwestern, an opponent whom they’ve faced 111 times before 2019 and every year since 1927. They haven’t done so since that 2014 season when they were bowl eligible, and that win in Evanston put Illinois into the Heart of Dallas Bowl and remained their last postseason game until this year.
Since then, Northwestern has enjoyed four years of success while the Illini went into rebuilding under Smith after the firing of both Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit. This year the script has flipped as the bowl-bound Illini face the 2-9 Wildcats, giving the home team a shot to take home the Land of Lincoln Trophy.
More than that, however, it’s a chance to give the 17 seniors at Illinois the chance to go out at home on a high note after so many lows during their time in Champaign. For those that started in 2016, the team had just nine wins in the previous three seasons and were rarely in bowl contention.
It’s that reason above all that Smith hopes his group rises to the challenge for their seventh win of 2019 on Saturday.
“I could talk about each one of them… but it’s a special time for them. We want to send them off, regular-season wise, on a high note, and it’s our rival, too. It’s a little bit more incentive to play your best football,” said Smith. “We haven’t beaten them since I’ve been here, but we’re a better football team. I know what their record is. I know it’s rivalry week a lot of places, and a lot of the same comments are being made. It doesn’t matter what your record is when you play a rival.”
But it would matter to beat one to put a cap on one great turnaround season for the Illini.