Disappointing? Sure. Time for panic? Not a chance.

Yes, Illinois’ 23-15 loss at home to Michigan State was unexpected. Even gut-wrenching. The Illini had a chance to put a big gap between themselves and any challengers in the B1G West with a win. It didn’t happen. Back to square one .

However, the worst thing Illini fans can do is panic and jump ship. Especially now. Big picture, folks. All is far from lost.

Big game vs. Purdue

In all likelihood the winner of the West comes down to who wins this Saturday’s tilt in Champaign. If Illinois can hold serve and beat the Boilermakers, basically all it has to do is beat Northwestern in its finale to wrap up the West. Throw out the trip to Ann Arbor. And Illini fans are hoping that turns out to be the case. Asking this team to go on the road and upset Michigan is a tall order.

Jeff Brohm’s team blew an opportunity to creep closer to the top of the standings. The Boilers dropped a 24-3 decision at home to Iowa. Purdue’s offense was stymied all day as the Hawkeyes served noticed they aren’t to be ignored as the West race reaches the home stretch.

But the reality of it all is that the road to Indy still runs through Champaign. Coach Bret Bielema’s team still has some cushion. Cushion thanks to not only Purdue’s loss to Iowa, but the fact that his team is 4-0 against teams from the West.

Head-to-head wins are important. They break ties. And if Illinois can upend Purdue at home Saturday, it’d be 5-0 against the West with a game against Northwestern remaining to go unbeaten in the division.

In fact, it’s a strong possibility Illinois finishes 6-0 vs. West foes and 0-3 vs. the East. It’d be good enough in this year’s Wild West.

Bielema needs the fans to show up Saturday. Be loud. Don’t throw in the towel now. Especially when the Illini need the faithful the most. It’s the final home game of the season in Champaign. The crowd can do its part and help the home team all but punch its ticket to Indy.

A rough history

Illinois hadn’t started 7-1 since 2001. A long period of 21 years. Even the 2007 Rose Bowl team had 3 losses. It’s been slim pickings in Champaign. Yet, there were grumblings in the media and from the fan base following Saturday’s loss to Sparty.

Perspective, folks. Your team is still 7-2. It controls its destiny. Past expectations have been low. The Illini played with a target on their backs Saturday. It didn’t go well. Chances are they regroup and Bielema has them ready to roll against Purdue.

Already bowl eligible, the rest is icing on the cake. Illinois was a preseason pick by the media to finish 5th in the West. They now hold the inside track to Indy. Quite a run by a team with not many expectations.

Since 2001, Illinois has reached a bowl game just 5 times. The last coming in 2019 at the Redbox Bowl in California.

A plethora of coaches have come and gone over the decades. John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Zook and Lovie Smith to name just a few. Success, regardless of who’s been in charge, has been a challenge. Bielema’s pushing the right buttons in Year 2. For fans to bail after 1 disappointing outing would be unwise.

Flush it, move on

The best thing for everyone — fans, players and coaches included — is to flush Saturday’s loss. And soon. Get back to work and take a look at the big picture. Illinois can still reach the conference championship game for the 1st time if it finishes 2-1. Very plausible.

It starts with Saturday’s showdown vs. Purdue. Get back to what was working. A strong running game led by Chase Brown. A suffocating defense at all 3 levels. Make life miserable for Aidan O’Connell. Follow the blueprint Iowa used.

Short memories will be key. Forget the weather, wind and Bielema’s distress with Sparty’s high number of in-game injuries (which slowed the game down). None of that matters moving forward.

All of it is water under the bridge if Illinois takes care of business Saturday.

Bielema made a strong plea via social media to get fans in the seats and sell out last Saturday vs. Sparty. Now’s not the time for the Illini faithful to jump ship. In fact, now, more than ever, this team needs the fans to show up. Be loud.

Winning is never easy. And in a place like Champaign where winning seasons have been few and far between, fans had best enjoy the ride. You never know when it will happen again.