COLUMN: Lovie Ball - Where the Magical Slowly Becomes the Norm

Matthew Stevens

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- There does come a point where the miraculous becomes normal. The incredible becomes anticipated. The unusual becomes typical.

Pretty soon all of us looking closely at this University of Illinois football program may need to start wondering if the 37-34 comeback win at Michigan State Saturday is where the crossroads of phenomenal and realistic happened.

Ask yourself this very important question: What if this October and November version of Lovie Smith's bench is the actual Illini team here to stay?

Lovie Smith, the beaten-up fourth-year head coach of the Illini, didn’t sprinkle some takeaway or touchdown magic dust on this defense in the halftime locker room a month ago. Creating turnovers, havoc and exciting comebacks is what his defenses have done at every previous stop of his coaching career. From St. Louis to Chicago to Tampa to Champaign, Lovie Smith’s defenses find the football, flip game momentums and produce sensational wins out of seemingly nowhere.

“One of the tougher games we've experienced, certainly...When we go back and look at that game, there's going to be some very somber moments there,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “We have to deal with it.

Think quickly about what Smith’s defenses traditional do.

Create takeaways - Entering the weekend, Illinois led the nation with 22 takeaways and forced Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke into four more Saturday. Illinois has at least one fumble recovery in every game this season.

Score touchdowns - For the fourth straight game, Illinois’ defense found the end zone when Sydney Brown took an interception back 76 yards for a score.

“The pick six honestly,” Illinois tailback Dre Brown said when asked what play assured him a win was coming. “That happened, and I knew that we were going to win this game. It wasn't, we might keep it close, it was we are about to win this game.”

Pull off massive comebacks - Smith is now the architect of the biggest comeback in Illini football history and most bizarre comeback in Monday Night Football history with the 2006 Chicago Bears’ “they are who we thought they were” win at Arizona.

These are the traits fully represented by the #WeWillWin slogan meant when Smith was hired by athletics director Josh Whitman. That vow is paying off big in 2019 as Whitman lifted his head coach completely off the ground in a bear hug following the win at Michigan State Saturday.

“There's a lot of people who continue to believe in us but you want your boss to be the main one and he's been that way,” Smith said after Illinois’ first four-game winning streak since 2001.

For all those thinking the Wisconsin upset win was a nice story that would slowly become a footnote after Illinois (6-4, 4-3 in Big Ten) turned back into a pumpkin when the calendar flipped to November, think again. Three straight wins after one of the biggest upsets in the 2019 college football season, suggests the turnaround Smith assured everyone was coming is here. With two more wins against Iowa (6-3, 3-3) and Northwestern (1-8, 0-7), Illinois can guarantee itself a third-place finish in the Western Division - something the Illini have never done since the conference split into a divisional format.

On the offensive side of the ball, Brandon Peters didn’t suddenly forget how to effectively throw the ball vertically down the field. The same guy who turned into a proficient but boring field general was suddenly the gunslinger he was recruited to Michigan to be and touted as being when he arrived on Illinois’ campus this past summer. Quarterbacks, no matter who they are or how highly they’re touted don’t come into East Lansing and throw it over the top of a Michigan State defense. Until Saturday. Peters’ 369 passing yards are the most by an opponent at Spartan Stadium since 2007, when Northwestern's CJ Batcher threw for 520.

“We told Brandon all week long in practice that he was going to see one-on-one matchups and to throw it up and challenge our guys to make a play on it,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “It may have looked drawn up in the dirt or improvised a lot today but those were calculated calls to take chances down the field in the pass game.”
Rod Smith’s quote shows this wasn’t a desperation mode deal. The jump balls to Josh Imatorbhebhe were repped in practice as the Modus operandi to victory over Michigan State.

“If people aren’t going to respect our ability to take the top off its defense, we proved today that Brandon is just going to keep throwing the jump balls allowing us to make plays,” Imatorbhebhe said. “I honestly don’t know how you defend us if defenses keep letting us build confidence in the passing game.”

Listen to every collegiate program builder and the one thing they constantly preach about needing more than anything else is an identity. A regularly opportunistic defense and a flair for the dramatic on offense certainly sounds like ingredients of identification.

Did it take longer (11-31 in Lovie Smith’s first 42 games) for this version of Illinois football to arrive than practically everyone wanted? Of course, yes. Is this identity here to stay? Well, what happens if that answer is also yes?