CHAMPAIGN — Lost in the shuffle of Illinois football players leaving the Memorial Stadium field on Saturday afternoon was Mike Thomas.
The Illinois athletic director shook players’ hands. Slapped them on the back.
Congratulated them on a win against Cincinnati almost no one outside the Illinois locker room predicted.
Illinois will now try to navigate between unexpected well-wishers this week and those who still want to see a win against Washington before proclaiming if a bowl berth is possible.
“It was a steppingstone,” strong safety Earnest Thomas said. “We know that wins don’t always come easy. We’ve been on the other side, so we know how it feels.”
Thomas and his roommate, Jonathan Brown, had a viewing party planned for Saturday night.
They were going to watch the game in order to help them analyze the tape even more before the Illini gathered Sunday afternoon for the first time to turn their sole focus toward the Huskies.
Brown said the defense didn’t do anything out of the ordinary against Cincinnati.
“We’ve got great coaches,” the linebacker said. “They scout these guys like no other. We got tip sheets, so they prepare us well.”
The win gave Illinois its first win against an FBS opponent since a 2012 season-opening victory against Western Michigan.
And Bill Cubit.
The former Broncos coach has propelled a downtrodden Illinois offense from last season into one that has topped 40 points in consecutive wins for only the second time this century. Not bad for his first year. At least early on.
“We’re pretty sure going into the game knowing what situations he’s going to call,” wide receiver Ryan Lankford said of the Illinois offensive coordinator. “Of course, there’s times when he switches it up on us, but most of the time these are plays we’ve repped all week and are comfortable with.”
Toughness and togetherness were two themes John Groce emphasized last winter. It seems Tim Beckman’s team might have harnessed those characteristics in the first two weeks of the season.
“I’ve been around a lot of football teams, and I’ve been around a lot of winning,” Beckman said. “I can tell you this. This football team works extremely hard and is as close-knit as I’ve been around in quite some time. They’re willing to try to make this program as good as they possibly can.”