COMMENTARY: No More Talk, Illini Finally Turn Words Into Action
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Until James McCourt’s toe hit the leather of the football, it was just words.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith had been saying for several weeks that the season was barely half over. The fourth-year coach constantly stressed with words a second-half turnaround of the 2019 season was coming with games that still left on this schedule.
And it was just talk.
Smith’s boss, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said Monday this Illini team “still got an opportunity to write a pretty significant chapter for Illinois football here”
And it was just meaningless chatter.
This coach, this program, these players and these fans needed action. They all needed this kind of action.
“When I talk about a big win for our program, there’s nothing like seeing that locker room celebrate,” Smith said. “We talk about our program and trending upwards, moving into a top facility, having top recruits here to see what we’re doing. It was pretty big.”
Until the Memorial Stadium scoreboard read: “Illinois 24, Wisconsin 23” with no time left did anybody outside the program believe this kind of win was possible. The players themselves knew they were on their own in terms when Illini offensive coordinator put the number 31 on a meeting board to represent the point spread of this game against the No. 6 Wisconsin.
“This is the stuff we were told could happen when we were recruits still in high school,” Illinois offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said. “It just shows trust. These coaches know what they’re doing. It’s easy to just go ‘oh (expletive) we’re 2-4 and not winning anymore’ but this helps us solidify everything. This is the national spotlight right now. Everyone is going to be talking about us.”
Think about it this way, when is the last time Illinois football had “a national spotlight”? Maybe it was when Whitman hired the former Chicago Bears coach in March 2016 but then watched everybody slowly forget as the program dived deep into an even bigger irrelevant mess.
“People tend to forget, we dominated Michigan for a period of time, we had a 14 point lead against Nebraska,” Smith said. “We are a little bit closer than people give us credit for. Now it is about stacking them, we got one big win but now it is about getting two in a row.”
For seniors like Palczewski, who had been told over and over this program was close but to only see the Illini lose 26 of 30 Big Ten games before Saturday, this upset win over a previously dominant Badgers team was a redemption moment.
“It’s super hard to keep working through brutal practices, weight room and everything we do but never seeing any results,” said Palczewski, who lifted kicker James McCourt on his shoulders following the 39-yard, game-winning kick. “This just shows the stuff we’re doing is working. It shows it is going to turn around here at Illinois. Everybody is ready to win and believe. I’m so excited right now.”
Brandon Peters, who had transferred in from a Michigan program that are almost always immune to losing four games in a row, was seeing players feel the motivational talk was cheap. They needed to see something like this before they were completely bought in.
"Four straight losses and then to come out here and do this today, I mean, it means a lot for this program and everyone on the team," Peters said. "Our confidence just shot way up for sure.”
Following four straight losses, graduate transfer receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe was tired of talking about what was mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically broken about this floundering football program.
“I have been talking about how this team needs to overcome a certain amount of inertia and that was it right there,” the Southern California transfer said Saturday. “Beating a number 6 team in the nation after losing 4 games, on home field, on homecoming there’s nothing like it. This was huge for the fans and Illini nation.”
More than anything that was said Saturday in Champaign, Illinois, Smith can now point to this moment, the Homecoming game in 2019, as a pivot point of evidence of what the University of Illinois football can be in the future.
More to the point, on October 19, 2019, Smith seemingly has a clear future with Illini football, which is certainly saying something.