CHAMPAIGN – If someone would have told Illinois fans that this would be the situation for the team around 1 PM on October 12th, they would have accused that person of being a liar.
That’s was around the second quarter of their game against Michigan at Memorial Stadium, where their opponents had raced out to a 28-0 lead. They’d already dropped their last three games as they struggled on offense and defense like they had the previous three seasons. Some were openly wondering if the Lovie Smith era was about to come to an end, as even the most die-hard believers in the coach and program expressed their doubts for a turnaround.
But something happened in that second half.
The scored 25-straight points against the Wolverines to make what was a blowout into a game, providing some hope for a late season turnaround. It was an effort that carried over to the next week when Illinois pulled a stunning upset of No. 6 Wisconsin for their first victory over a Top 10 team since 2007.
After that, the Illini followed up with convincing wins over Purdue and Rutgers.
Now a month after the disastrous first half against Michigan, Illinois is one win from bowl eligibility following three-straight victories in the Big Ten conference. They’ve gone from 2-4 to 5-4, and a win over Michigan State in East Lansing this Saturday puts them in the postseason for the first time since the 2014 season.
Is this real? Yes, it is, and their turnaround comes from a logical place if you think about the history of the head coach.
An inspired defense, which after three years of struggle, is finally looking like the unit many expected when the former Bears’ head coach came to Champaign in March of 2016.
For the season, the unit has an FBS-high 22 turnovers this season, also leading the nation in forced fumbles (17), fumble recoveries (15) to go along with seven interceptions – and they’ve been particularly good over the last month. Starting with the second half against Michigan, Illinois has forced nine turnovers, with two coming against the Wolverines, three against Wisconsin, two against Purdue, and three in the victory over Rutgers Saturday.
Three times they’ve converted those turnovers into immediate touchdowns, doing so twice in the win over the Scarlet Knights. Linebacker Dele Harding, who had a “Pick 6” in the win over Rutgers, was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts. For Smith, a big part of turnaround starts with linebackers like Harding and Jake Hansen, who was named a Butkus Award semifinalist this week.
“When you have a Big 10 Player of the Week in Dele Harding, he has played outstanding football throughout. I mean how can a player like Dele not be on the Butkus watch list too. I’m trying to figure that out. But he and Jake Hansen have been playing outstanding football,” said Smith of his linebacker. “I can’t think of two linebackers that I’ve seen in college football playing better than the two of those.”
So far, this is the best Smith’s defense has been since he arrived in Champaign. It arrived about a month ago, and in just the nick of time to save an Illini season and maybe an era of the program.