House of Pain’s “Jump Around” echoed through Memorial Stadium after the Illini upset Wisconsin. Talk about a DJ with a sense of the moment (and a sense of humor). Biggest win for the Illini in more than a decade.
WHAT IT MEANS
Taking down the sixth-ranked Badgers shifts the narrative around this Illinois team. At least a little. It snapped a four-game losing streak, but that stretch still has the now three-win Illini in a hole with five games to play.
Count next Saturday’s trip to Purdue among the winnable games still on the Illinois schedule with a bowl game still mathematically on the table. The only Big Ten team Lovie Smith has beaten on the road, though, is Rutgers.
Handing out grades
Player of the game | Illinois kicker James McCourt
You don’t make a game-winning field goal to upset the No. 6 team in the country and not take home player of the game honors. The Illini redshirt junior, originally from Ireland, missed from 40 yards in the first quarter, but he got redemption in a big way by drilling his 39-yard attempt as time expired to take down Wisconsin.
A 43-yard touchdown run by Reggie Corbin at least gave the Illini run game a little life, but that half of the offense still has some questions. To be fair, so does Brandon Peters in the passing game, but he made a crucial touchdown throw to Josh Imatorbhebhe in the fourth quarter.
Sure, Jonathan Taylor rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown, but it took the Badgers’ standout 28 carries to do so. The Illinois run defense wasn’t perfect, but it was loads better than the previous three weeks. Three takeaways helped, too.
McCourt’s early miss gets wiped out by the biggest field goal make of his career. Which one will fans remember? Illini punter Blake Hayes was also his steady self, including one boomer that pinned the Badgers inside the 5-yard line.
Some defensive changes helped the Illini lock in better against the Wisconsin run game. A bigger defensive front — Jamal Woods playing at end, for one — tied up blockers and allowed the Illinois linebackers to thrive. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst not having Taylor on the field for the entire final drive for the Badgers raises some eyebrows.
Based on the reactions from players (some shed pent up tears of joy) and coaches alike after the game, this was a win that the Illini desperately needed. It was affirmation that the work they put in can have a positive result. But Lovie Smith said it best in his postgame press conference. Illinois has to stack wins now to make this one mean something more.