Illinois should savor upset win, but there is plenty more to accomplish
The effort Illinois displayed against Wisconsin on Saturday should be the new standard in Champaign.
Lovie Smith and the Fighting Illini — 30-point underdogs — scored the biggest upset of the 2019 college football season, stunning No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 on a James McCourt 39-yard field goal as time expired.
It was the program’s first win against a ranked foe since knocking off No. 1 Ohio State in 2007, and it was the signature win of the Smith era.
For longtime Illini fans, Saturday had to feel like 1983 again, when the team knocked off Michigan 16-6 in a late October game at Memorial Stadium. The fans rushed the field that day to celebrate Mike White’s squad, which held Michigan without a touchdown for only the second time in 72 games. The Illini victory was their first win in the series since 1966 and the first over the Wolverines at home since 1957.
Of course, the 2019 Illini are not going to Pasadena as White’s crew did. But, as they did on a bright, sunny afternoon in Champaign 36 years ago, Illinois fans were able to exhale, indulge in the moment and celebrate on the field after a standout and very surprising victory.
The ’83 Illini used their nasty defense that day to thwart Bo Schembechler’s crew. On Saturday against the Badgers, the Illini used a little bit of everything.
Quarterback Brandon Peters only completed 9 passes, but two of them were touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception, and he received help from running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, who combined for 153 yards and a score. The touchdown came on a rush by Corbin that spanned 43 yards and cut the Badgers lead to 20-14 late in the third quarter.
It looked bleak for the Illini defense, which allowed the Badgers to move the ball comfortably throughout the game. But the unit held Paul Chryst’s offense to a field goal after a first-and-goal from the 3, and star Badgers tailback Jonathan Taylor then fumbled at the Illinois 25. Following that turnover, the Illini went on a 75-yard touchdown drive that ended when Peters connected with Josh Imatorbhebhe on a 29-yard score to make it 23-21 with 5:53 left.
The biggest defensive play of the game then followed, as Badgers signal-caller Jack Coan tossed his lone interception of the day to give Illinois a short field and set up the game-winner.
It was a team effort all around, and it gives Illinois fans hope for the future.
But there is plenty of work remaining.
This was undoubtedly the program’s biggest victory since that upset of the top-ranked Buckeyes in 2007, and it was Smith’s biggest win since he led the Chicago Bears to a win over the Seattle Seahawks in the 2010 NFL playoffs.
This is Smith’s fourth season in Champaign, and it’s time the Illini return to the postseason. Youth and injuries can no longer be used as excuses. Illinois just beat a very good Wisconsin team, and at 3-4 can use this as a turnaround point of the season. It can even be argued that the turnaround began last week when the Illini fought back against Michigan in a losing effort.
The team should enjoy this victory, but then it must turn its attention to taking care of business next Saturday at Purdue and then Rutgers the following week. Smith is at the point of his program build where the expectation should be to win a Big Ten West division game on the road. And winning in West Lafayette certainly qualifies.
There would be no shame dropping road tilts against Michigan State and Iowa. But in the regular-season finale against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium, this Illinois team should be in position to go bowling with a win.
Or else Saturday’s celebration after a standout win will just be an after-thought.