It was there for the taking for Illinois. A chance for a huge, signature win at the Big House.

But it wasn’t meant to be. For the 3rd straight week, Illinois lost a conference game. This one, the most disappointing. The Illini held a 17-10 4th quarter lead over No. 3 Michigan in Ann Arbor. But the Illini couldn’t quite make enough plays to seal the deal. And Michigan’s Jake Moody knocked through a 35-yard FG with 9 seconds left to rip out the hearts of the Illinois faithful.

The 19-17 loss all but eliminated the Illini from contention in the B1G West. Iowa enters the final week as the favorite to head to Indy. All the Hawkeyes need is a Black Friday win at home over 3-8 Nebraska to punch their ticket.

An Illini win would’ve put them in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re left wondering “what-if” after losses to Michigan State, Purdue and now Michigan.

It’s been a tough stretch for Bret Bielema’s squad. Bad weather, bad breaks and questionable officiating have left the folks in Champaign pulling their hair out.

Responding won’t be easy

Illinois enters the final week of the regular season at 7-4 overall. The Illini head to Evanston to take on Northwestern in both teams’ season finale. Pulling themselves off the mat — especially after the past 3 weeks — won’t be easy.

Things went south late against Michigan. After Chase Brown sprinted 37 yards for a TD to make it 17-10, Michigan rallied. Moody would boot 3 field goals over the final 15 minutes to keep the Wolverines’ unbeaten season alive. The final drive wasn’t without drama — and controversy.

Facing a 4th-and-3 at the Illini 45, Wolverines QB JJ McCarthy hit Isaiah Gash for an 8-yard completion and a 1st down. But replays showed that offensive pass interference could’ve easily been called. It looked like a pick play to free up Gash. No flag and the drive continued.

The next play saw Illinois’ standout corner Devon Witherspoon flagged for PI. Another 15 yards and the Wolverines were in business. It was a close call. But a call that didn’t go the visitors’ way. Three plays later Moody trotted on the field and nailed the game-winner.

Another week, another close loss. Bielema wasn’t thrilled with the officiating. A common theme of the past 3 weeks. The breaks, again, did not go the way of the Illini.

Bouncing back from disappointment won’t be easy. Getting up for the in-state rival Wildcats should help a little. But there’s likely to be little to play for. Maybe a better-tier bowl selection. But that’s about it. It’s been a ridiculously tough 3 weeks for the Illini. Add the fact Bielema’s mom passed away this week, and the heartache amongst the guys is fresh and real.

Challenge to finish strong

If there’s ever a simple message Bielema can sell to his team, it’s this: Finish strong.

The Illini have had too good a season to limp to the finish line. A win over Northwestern is a necessity. No, it won’t be easy. The mental state of this team has to be extremely fragile. Putting it all back together, after the past weeks’ disappointments, won’t be easy. But the players owe it to themselves. They owe it to their coach. To come out and give it one last heroic effort against one of their rivals.

Northwestern hasn’t won since its season-opening 31-28 win over Nebraska in Dublin. Seems like ages ago. Pat Fitzgerald’s team has had its share of struggles. The defense played well in a 17-9 loss at Purdue Saturday. The offense? That’s another story.

The Illinois defense should feast on a meager Wildcats attack. Slow down Evan Hull. That’s the ticket to success.

Chase Brown played Saturday despite being dinged up against Purdue a week ago. Look for a healthy Brown to make a statement. Quarterback Tommy DeVito has had his ups and downs recently. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. will need to be in attack mode in order to make sure the Illini aren’t sleepwalking in Evanston.

As rough as it’s been recently, you have to feel for Bielema. It’s been a masterful coaching job by the veteran coach. He’s pushed a lot of the right buttons and his defense has brought its lunch pail all season.

A few breaks here and there, and the West is looking at a much different outcome.

It is what it is. And now’s not the time to pack it in. One more week, Illini. Punch the clock, finish strong and reap the rewards of a nice bowl bid. You’ve earned it.