A lot of sports talking heads spout nonsense about the “Cardinal Way” or “Patriots Way” as their way of describing a team that wins with smart organization and respect or whatever. The reason I’m submitting anyone reading this to such a description is because if there was such a thing as the “Illinois Football Way,” the path the team took to bowl eligibility and barely getting picked for a bowl after that was definitely it.
To accurately recap it, we have to go back before August 30th, before the Illini played their first game of the year. This was back when Wes Lunt was going to torch everyone, even Big Ten opponents, and a bowl game seemed so likely. It’s hard to remember now, but even the most realistic Illini writers (and smart, too, because I’m thinking of Robert at IlliniBoard.com) had the team winning at least 5 games with a view for a sixth.
Then August 30th rolled around and Illinois trailed Youngstown State 9-7 entering the fourth quarter. It wasn’t all roses at that point, but a Lunt-inspired rally earned the “dubya” (to paraphrase the estimable Tim Beckman) and Illinois was no worse off. Then another 21-point rally was necessary a week later to overcome Western Kentucky and some of the shine on this Illini squad started to wear off. The blowout to Washington, which was expected, didn’t help to lessen any fan’s worries and trailing Texas State at the start of the fourth quarter the following week before eking out a win piled on fear of how this season would end up.
Illinois started conference play 3-1, as expected, but Nebraska ran roughshod over the Illini 45-14 in the first conference game of the year. The Cornhuskers’ trouncing was bad, but the next game was Purdue, poor little Purdue, the whipping boy of the Big Ten. Playing the Boilermakers would surely get Illinois’s ship righted.
Then the wheels fell off.
Anyone who was paying attention to Illinois football this year remembers the Purdue game the same way they remember having a mole removed from their ass. It was miserable, front to back, Illinois just shit the bed in front of the home fans and let the Boilermakers walk away with a 38-27 that was even less of a contest than the score indicated. All of the sudden it was “second verse, same as the first,” as Illinois fans remembered how Timmy Beckman’s 2013 season went and how everyone wanted him fired after last year. I was among them. On this site I said there was likely no saving Beckman now that he had crossed the Rubicon by losing to Purdue. I didn’t see a way to 6 wins or to salvation, especially with Lunt breaking his leg in the loss.
Then the football gods conspired to make all of us calling for Beckman’s head look like assholes.
Another (expected) throttling, this time by Wisconsin, was followed up by a nearly miraculous win against a good Minnesota team. I say miraculous because the defense, the previously hapless and beaten defense, stood strong and earned the win more than the offense did. Beating Minny wasn’t enough to convince anyone Illinois was bowl-bound, but it was certainly a bright spot amongst the sea of darkness the Beckman era had become.
Then Illinois lost two less-than-competitive games in a row against Ohio State and Iowa and the Minnesota win became a distant glimmer, not the bright light of true salvation. At 4-6 and needing to win out and Tim Beckman seemed to be the only person alive with faith that his team could reach bowl eligibility. The coach, who was prone to telling reporters how many plays Illinois was from winning any game (i.e., “If you take away those 6 plays, we’re right in this ballgame” and other such malarkey), was still touting how close his team was to that elusive six-win threshold.
Perhaps his bullshit worked well on his players, because even though skeptical fans and the hardened media weren’t buying it, Illinois found a way to win again. Against Penn State, once again the defense played like a champion and helped Illinois scratch and claw its way to victory, 16-14, setting up a showdown for bowl eligibility with Northwestern.
The Wildcats were just 2 weeks removed from beating a ranked Notre Dame team when they welcomed Illinois to Evanston, making it seem a longshot for the Illini to win. Adding to the doubt, Illinois was riding with backup Reilly O’Toole rather than Lunt, preferring to use O’Toole’s leg as an additional weapon rather than rely on Lunt’s arm exclusively. But dammit, it worked, and it worked well. O’Toole and the Illini not only won, they won convincingly, 47-33, beating Northwestern in Evanston for the first time in 12 years.
And, to the shock of everyone who sat through Illinois’s miserable loss to Purdue (which was Purdue’s only Big Ten win of the year, it should be noted), Illinois was bowl eligible. In perfect Illini fashion, though, the drama wasn’t over.
With 10 Big Ten teams at 6 wins, and with more teams bowl eligible nation-wide than there are bowl invites, the conference put its teams on notice that every eligible team might not be guaranteed a spot in a bowl game. The reasons for this came down to contracts signed by bowl committees and leagues, they’re technical and confusing and probably detailed better elsewhere if anyone cares, but as the last team to reach bowl eligibility it looked like a there was a not insignificant chance Illinois could be left out.
In the end, the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl invited Illinois to come down and play Louisiana Tech on December 26th. The Illini gratefully accepted and sighed a deep breath of relief. It turned out that a few bowls disregarded their secondary or tertiary contracts with leagues to take larger conference schools, so Illinois likely would have been bowling regardless, but is there anything besides this series of events that could be called the “Illinois Football Way”?
As a human being I can’t help but feel happy for the seniors making their way to Dallas to play after Christmas. They did a heck of a job banding together to turn this football team around. I give them all the credit for where Illinois football is right now, because I don’t believe Tim Beckman and his staff really did this. Yes, Beckman’s teams have improved year by year, but looking at the recruits for 2015 and beyond I don’t imagine this growth to be sustainable, not without the luck the grit the team had this year.
I know I’m not alone in thinking this about Beckman, because Illinois games averaged 41,548 in attendance this year, down from 43,786 in 2013, which was down from 45,564 in 2012, which was down from 50,708 in 2011 (Ron Zook’s final year as head coach). But Beckman will be back next year, Athletic Director Mike Thomas made that clear in his press release (which is less than a ringing endorsement of the coach), so there’s no sense in feeling anything but happiness for the seniors at this point and wishing them the best as they take on Louisiana Tech in Dallas.