WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Nobody in orange and blue wants to jinx it and Lovie Smith won’t talk about it.
But Illinois (4-4, 2-3 in Big Ten) is staring down the possibility of having three chances to earn that magical four-letter word that seemed improbable over a month ago: Bowl.
With the Illini defense completely neutering a injury-plagued but lifeless offense at Purdue Saturday, Smith now enters that uncharted territory of significant and tangible progress for the Illini head coach's program rebuild in his fourth year. For the first time in his tenure, Illinois will have postseason implications hanging in the balance during the month of November.
“Honestly, we’ve been talking about a bowl since the first game of the season,” Illinois senior safety Stanley Green said. “We never doubted ourselves. We just knew we had to get one big, key win and beat these teams like Purdue, Rutgers, Northwestern's, those types of teams.”
These were not words being said after Illinois lost to Eastern Michigan in Week 3 or looked lost in both sides of the ball at Minnesota a month ago. These were not words being said around campus, in the locker room and among the orange and blue-clad Illini fans desperate for something positive to cling to.
The win last week against Wisconsin was miraculous and gave the Illini a platform they hadn’t had in over a decade. The win Saturday at Purdue validated the thoughts that this defense has possibly turned a corner from laughable to laughing at everybody else turning to move the ball.
“It’s about the attitude of this team and not a lot of people see what is going on in those meeting rooms,” Illinois senior defensive tackle Jamal Milan said. “The older guys are speaking up more and the younger guys are following. That’s something we’ve been lacking.”
In the last 10 quarters of play, Illinois has allowed 43 points but the defense has forced seven turnovers leading to 39 points for the Illini offense. Purdue, which is known as the ‘Cradle of Quarterbacks’, was forced to turn to a walk-on signal-caller with just one completed pass before Saturday due to the ineffectiveness of redshirt freshman Jack Plummer. Plummer was physically beaten up, mentally confused and emotionally battered by his head coach as Jeff Brohm had no answers for an Illini defense that outscored Brohm’s high-powered aerial attack 7-6 Saturday.
“We got exposed in many areas,” Brohm said. “It was a bad day.”
Illinois was nearly six minutes away from its first road shutout since 1965 and first shutout anywhere on planet Earth in 19 years.
With two and a half games of evidence, against drastically different offensive styles, Illinois’ defense led by senior leaders in the secondary and in the front seven are slowly proving this side of the ball may be a strength and not a weakness after all.
All of this excitement leads Illini fans, athletics officials and maybe even behind closed doors to play the dreaded schedule game and wonder which of the remaining offenses left seem like a daunting task.
- Rutgers is well...Rutgers. Congrats on the upset win over Liberty.
- Michigan State has gone through 10 straight quarters against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State where they’ve found the end zone twice.
- In Iowa’s first two road games (at Iowa State and Michigan), the Hawkeyes didn’t crack 20 points.
- Northwestern is 1-6 this season with point totals of 7, 10, 15, 10, 3 and zero in its six games against Power 5 Conference opponents.
As Illini fans flip that calendar toward November, there’s an unfamiliar feeling that accompanies this task: Hope. There’s hope the Illini will still have football games after Christmas and while this is seen as a requirement at a lot of places, at Illinois this is seen as what we like to call progress.