CHAMPAIGN – It was fitting that the sun shined right into Memorial Stadium from the start to the finish on Saturday afternoon.
It’s been a long time since Illinois football was in the glow of a major victory. They hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent since knocking off Arizona State in 2011, and their last victory over a Big Ten team in the polls was the upset of No. 1 Ohio State in 2007.
There haven’t been a lot of highlights in between, and since that 2011 win over the Sun Devils, the Illini have had four different head coaches with just two bowl appearances. Lovie Smith is the most recent on that list as he’s undertaken quite a rebuilding effort in Champaign that’s brought little to cheer about on the field since 2016.
But Saturday let the sunshine in, and it shined as bright as any win in program history.
Illinois’ defense showed up like never before in the Smith era, holding the Badgers to a season-low 23 points and just three in the fourth quarter. Two forced turnovers in the final ten minutes gave Illinois’ offense a chance to capitalize, and they did just that. A touchdown drive was then followed by another short field goal march in the final seconds.
James McCourt’s 39-yarder as time expired gave Illinois a win over sixth-ranked Wisconsin, producing a magical moment for a program lacking for anything close this decade. For Smith, it brings legitimacy to what he’s built with the program since March of 2016 while also taking some of heat off his own coaching seat after a 2-4 start.
“We’ve worked hard behind the scenes to win every football game. We have come up short in a few, but progress has been made. This confirms it to a lot of people who don’t know what we are doing each day,” said Smith of the Wisconsin win. “We are on the right track, we are going to win a lot of games around here. That was one, and we need to win a second one this week.”
Yes, they do, because reaching a critical goal in Illinois’ rebuild will depend on the final five games after the upset of the Badgers.
It starts this week as the Illini travel to West Lafayette to face an injury-riddled Purdue team that’s 2-5 on the season. The Boilers aren’t at the level they were when they visited Champaign on homecoming last season and beat Illinois 46-7, and they’ll be in need of a victory to keep fading bowl chances alive.
After that comes a match-up with struggling Rutgers in Champaign before two difficult road games against Michigan State and No. 20 Iowa. The season ends in Champaign on November 30th against Northwestern who currently sits at 1-5.
At 3-4, Illinois must win three of the final five games to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014. So the celebration of the breakthrough win will be a bit short.
“A lot of good things happened, and that’s good for that last game, but then you move on quickly,” said Smith. “And last year homecoming we were embarrassed by Purdue, 46-7 or something like that. They played well, we didn’t, so it’s a chance to redeem yourself. It’s one thing to get one win, but it’s important to stack wins.”
That way the sun keeps shining in for more than one afternoon in Champaign.