CHAMPAIGN — Yes, Illinois football is still going to a bowl game. It just doesn’t feel like it should be,
Illinois picked up the required sixth win Nov. 9 with a stirring, program-changing 37-34 comeback victory at Michigan State.
That was the team’s fourth win in a row and clinched the program’s first postseason berth since 2014.
Some (OK, it was me) even suggested the Illini could win the Big Ten West. Oh ... so .... wrong.
All the positive vibes have taken a hit in the last two games.
First, an extremely beatable Iowa team held on for a 19-10 victory in Iowa City last Saturday. No shame there. The Hawkeyes are ranked and on their way to another nice bowl.
But Saturday’s not-as-close-as-it-sounds 29-10 loss to Northwestern in front of an announced crowd of 35,895 at Memorial Stadium was a setback in the rebirth of Illinois football.
Take a moment before you call the Illini healed. The Wildcats showed some of the remaining flaws.
Like the lack of depth. Illinois played without starting quarterback Brandon Peters and top receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe. The backups tried their best. But weren’t up for the job.
Against Pat Fitzgerald’s defending West champions, the Illini appeared unprepared and, even worse, uninspired.
The latter makes no sense. The team had so much to play for.
Senior Day. The Land of Lincoln Trophy. The return of injured defensive end Bobby Roundtree, who addressed the team before kickoff.
Every intangible favored the Illini.
For some reason, it didn’t matter. The defense was flat and the offense ineffective.
Not the way senior linebacker Dele Harding wanted to finish his home career.
“No man, it was just mission incomplete really,” Harding said. “From all phases: offense, defense, special teams, too. That’s not the way we wanted to go out.”
Harding didn’t see the flat tire coming.
“It’s pretty much the same approach every game for me,” Harding said. “I don’t want to underestimate anybody. Obviously, we kind of did (Saturday) and they were able to get away with a win.”
Northwestern controlled the ball, running for 378 yards, Two Wildcats went over 100, including quarterback Andrew Marty.
“Really, just tackling is what it kind of came down to,” Harding said. “They went for it a lot (on fourth down). They’ve got four plays to get 10 yards.”
The Wildcats fell forward on many of the hits, which created friendlier conversions.
One to go
Seventeen Illini players ran onto Zuppke Field for the last time Saturday.
“We played well for most of the season,” senior receiver Caleb Reams said. “We’ve just got to move on to the next one.”
Thankfully for the Illini seniors, their season won’t end with an ugly loss at home. Instead, they’ve got a bowl game coming, whereabouts unknown.
The bowl eased some of the pain for the players. Emphasis on “some.”
“We want to leave off on a good note so they can take that energy into next year,” Harding said.
“It’s definitely helpful,” senior running back Dre Brown said. “Losing two straights is never fun. We need some extra practice, honestly. I think this will help the program moving forward.”
No matter what happens in the bowl, the two-game losing streak to end the regular season has soured the turnaround. At least, just a bit.
“Bowl game was our first priority of course, then beating our rival was next on the list,” Harding said.
Now, the Ilini have to wait almost a month to get back on the field. The bad taste might linger longer than a normal loss.
“We left a couple plays out there on both sides of the ball,” Harding said. “It’s going to hurt for a while. But we’ve just got to move forward.”
Lovie Smith didn’t have much good to say about his team’s performance. Nor should he have.
“Disappointment doesn’t even seem like as strong a word for what we did (Saturday),” the fourth-year Illinois leader said.
To his credit, he didn’t point out all the players the Illini were missing. After 11 games, everybody in the Big Ten is playing short-handed.
“Hopefully, we’ll get a lot of those guys back and we can get back to how we’ve been playing throughout the year,” he said. “(Saturday) wasn’t our best version of how we’ve played this year.”
Smith talks often about the 24-hour rule. Win or lose, you move on.
Now, Smith and his staff will need to help the team rebound.
“None of us did our job,” Smith said. “Of course, it always starts with me. I thought I had our football team more ready to play better football than that. I haven’t seen that an awful lot. We’re going to get rid of it and we’re going to bounce back for the bowl game.”
Wisely, Smith is looking ahead to the unknown bowl against an unknown opponent.
“We have a one-day season coming up,” he said. “We’re a bowl team. That’s progress with our program. The chance to have a winning record is big for us.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.