CHAMPAIGN — Ross-Ade Stadium might turn into an overdue celebration party for the Illinois football program by Saturday evening.
After all, the Illini have won three of their last four games at the venue in West Lafayette, Ind., where former Purdue great Drew Brees will be in attendance this Saturday. The Boilermakers are celebrating their 2000 Rose Bowl team at the 97-year-old building that coincides with the 97th meeting between the two nearby rivals.
Whoever wins Saturday breaks a 45-45-6 gridlock in the all-time series. And, of course, gets to hoist the Cannon afterwards.
So if Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit and Love Smith can guide Illinois to victories in Josh Whitman’s hometown during the last eight seasons, why can’t Bret Bielema?
Fair argument. But it’s also fair to wonder what a win on Saturday does for the Illini besides end a three-game losing streak. Sure, it improves their Big Ten record to 2-1. Increases the probability they head into homecoming on Oct. 9 against No. 18 Wisconsin with a .500 record given the Oct. 2 home game against Charlotte (2-1) is likely a win.
But does anyone see a realistic path for Illinois to finish 5-3 the rest of the season and get to that elusive six-win mark needed for bowl eligibility? Too many issues have transpired in September to trust this team.
Inconsistent quarterback play. Injuries to essentially their entire backfield. Receivers who are good at scooping up an errant fumble for a weird touchdown, but who struggle to create separation from opposing cornerbacks.
An offensive line that has struggled to generate open holes and keep defensive linemen away from their quarterbacks.
A defensive line that sometimes gets after opposing quarterbacks and sometimes doesn’t. A linebacker room that has probably showed the most consistent production out of any position group, but still needs to do more (can Jake Hansen force, I don’t know, four or five fumbles against Purdue?). A secondary that has given up an average of 321.3 passing yards, worst in the Big Ten.
Some of the themes Bielema spoke about early Saturday morning after the Illini’s dispiriting 20-17 loss to Maryland seemed to echo sentiments a frustrated Brad Underwood shared in his first season leading the Illinois men’s basketball program. The main one: how the players have to actually experience winning to know what it’s like to win.
Take Hansen for instance. The sixth-year senior and unquestioned leader of the Illinois defense had a superb night against Maryland. Led the Illini in tackles with 12. Picked up a sack. Surpassed Whitney Mercilus for second-most forced fumbles by an Illini (Hansen has 12 now) and is two away from passing Simeon Rice for most in program history.
But with only eight guaranteed games left in his college career, the Illini are 18-43 since Hansen first stepped foot on this campus prior to the 2016 season.
Look back at the 2017-18 Illinois men’s basketball season for a second. Illinois fans had to feel good after a 6-0 start. Then had to convince themselves to tune in again after a disappointing 92-91 loss to Maryland (it’s those pesky Terrapins again) in early December 2017 when the Illini gave up a late lead (sounds familiar).
Then had to endure separate six-game and four-game losing streaks once Big Ten play heated up in the cold of winter. All for a proud program to slip to 14-18 and miss out on the NCAA tournament once again.
The Big Ten schedule gets tougher for Illinois football, starting on Saturday. Purdue (2-1) won’t want to lose its Big Ten opener after staying close but ultimately losing 27-13 to No. 12 Notre Dame this past Saturday.
Wisconsin, No. 6 Penn State and No. 5 Iowa will all likely still be ranked by the time Illinois plays the trio. Rutgers, Minnesota and Northwestern are all possible losses.
Maybe the Illini will ride back to Champaign on Saturday night with the Cannon in tow among their caravan of charter buses. But the 2021 season has already felt like a slog at times.
It’s not going to get any easier any time soon.
Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.