CHAMPAIGN — They won’t be building a statue honoring Matt Robinson. Not yet at least.
But on the weekend the school recognized Dick Butkus with a long-awaited monument, Robinson almost earned his place in Illinois lore. Emphasis on the word almost.
Down 28-0 to Michigan in the first half, the redshirt freshman rallied Illinois in his first college start. When Dre Brown scored from 1 yard out and added a two-point conversion, the Illini were within 28-25. With 12:50 left to play.
“We got it together some kind of way in the third quarter,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said after a 42-25 Illinois loss to the 16th-ranked Wolverines on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. “When you’re down 28 points and you get the game to a three-point game in the second half, that’s saying an awful lot.”
It was a gut check.
“We had to decide what we wanted to do and we chose to fight harder,” Smith said.
The players believed.
Of course, you can’t make a big comeback before first falling way behind.
“I don’t like the way we started the game (Saturday), especially on the defensive side of the football,” Smith said.
The Illini defense couldn’t slow Michigan’s run game. Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet both topped 100 yards.
You wondered for a while if quarterback Shea Patterson would even need to throw a pass. He eventually did, firing three for scores.
Robinson replaced Brandon Peters, who was out while following the concussion protocol.
Peters’ status for next Saturday’s homecoming game against unbeaten Wisconsin remains unclear.
“You saw him on the sideline,” Smith said of Peters. “He’s doing pretty good right now. We’re hopeful he’ll be ready to go next week. Of course, a game like this (against his former school) you can imagine how bad he wanted to play.”
Robinson completed 16 of 25 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. He ran for a second score.
Smith was impressed.
“Matt I thought was poised, composed, made plays when he needed to,” Smith said. “Matt did some good things (Saturday).”
Smith saw his quarterback’s confidence grow.
“That’s natural, that’s normal,” Smith said. “Your first start, I know he was really excited about it. After a while, you forget that and then you start playing football.”
Robinson knew early in the week he was likely going to start.
“I usually try to prepare like I’m the starter,” he said.
How did it go?
“It was pretty fun out there,” he said. “I had a good time. I thought we played pretty well. We came up a little bit short, but I thought the offense did a pretty good job.”
The performance gives Robinson a boost going forward. No matter what his role is.
“Getting that experience is definitely going to help,” he said.
Robinson’s dad Jeoff made the trip from California.
“It was pretty special,” Robinson said. “He’s a big reason why I’m here.”
They exchanged texts before the game.
“He said, ‘You’ve been ready for this your whole life. Go out there, have fun and do your thing.’”
Peters was with Robinson on the sidelines, offering encouragement.
“He was there if I needed anything,” Robinson said. “He was good.”
Shades of 1999
I was there at Michigan Stadium 20 years ago. That day, the Illini fell behind 27-7.
Like Lloyd Carr back then, Jim Harbaugh seemed to set his team on cruise control Saturday.
Harbaugh got away with it against Smith’s 2-4 team. The Wolverines scored two late touchdowns to put the game away.
The Illini helped with two turnovers.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to finish games,” Smith said. “It’s good to play well at times, but we need to be able to do that more consistency.”
How much howling would there have been in Ann Arbor had Harbaugh allowed the big lead to slip away?
Michigan fans were unhappy when their team got blown out by Wisconsin. A loss to Illinois might have been the last straw.
No worries. Though not the playoff-bound team some expected, Michigan still controls its destiny in the Big Ten East. Win out and it will take the division title.
The ‘99 Illini used the upset win at Michigan to spark a revival. Ron Turner’s team won five of its final six, including a blowout victory against Virginia at the Micronpc.com Bowl. The Illini were ranked No. 24 in the final AP poll.
What will a near-miss against Michigan mean for Smith?
Well, it wasn’t the blowout that appeared possible late in the first half.
Losing by 17 to ranked Michigan won’t count against Smith. Not much.
Those watching from the stands or in their family rooms noticed an improved Illini team. Better than 2018.
In the moment, there is progress. So far, there haven’t been any of the 63-point explosions by the opponents that jaded the feeling about last year’s team.
Competitive games eventually need to become victories. Illinois will be a heavy underdog against Wisconsin. But then come potentially winnable games against Purdue and Rutgers.
Those must go in the left-hand column.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.