SANTA CLARA – It’s been a bit since Illinois football fans have looked at December with some level of anticipation, but the five-year wait ends on Monday.
It’s not a major bowl or one on New Year’s Day, but the Illini will certainly take it after a few difficult years of rebuilding under a couple of coaches.
Thanks to a four-game winning streak that re-energized the program and the fan base, Lovie Smith will take his team onto the field at Levi’s Stadium for the Redbox Bowl on Monday afternoon to face Cal. It’s the first postseason game for Illinois since they took part in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2014 under then-head coach Tim Beckman.
He was fired before the start of the next season, and four losing seasons under two head coaches would follow after that.
Three of those were under Smith, and after a number of changes in personnel, Smith’s Illini finally broke through in 2019 after starting the season 2-4. A shocking 24-23 win over then No. 6 Wisconsin reversed the narrative for the entire campaign, as Illinois rallied from nine points down in the fourth quarter to beat the previously undefeated Badgers.
Three-consecutive wins followed after that to make Illinois bowl-eligible – including a stunning comeback at Michigan State on November 9th. Down 28-3 in the first half and 31-10 entering the fourth quarter, the Illini outscored the Spartans 27-3 in the final 15 minutes, getting a touchdown pass from Brandon Peters to Daniel Barker with five seconds left to pick up the victory.
While the season did end on a bit of a downer after losses at Iowa and Northwestern at home in the finale, the 6-6 record was good enough to earn a bid to the California bowl game.
For Illinois, it’s a chance to pick up their first postseason victory since 2011, and it came in the same game as they’ll take part in on Monday. In 2011, then named the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl played at Oracle Park in San Francisco, the Illini beat UCLA 20-14, doing so after head coach Ron Zook was fired after six-straight losses to end the season.
Eight years later, Smith’s Illini faces another team from the host state in the Cal Bears, who finished 7-5 on the season. It’s been a long time coming for the program, who is hoping to take another step in their rebuilding in Santa Clara just before the new year.