With a win over Northwestern in the final week of the season, the Illinois Fighting Illini can clinch back-to-back bowl seasons for the first time in 12 years and only the second time in the last 30 campaigns.
However, Illinois is no stranger to this situation. Since the turn of the millennium, Illinois has played fourteen games in November that they entered with exactly five wins.
They’ve won three of them.
This mark improves to 5-13-1 if you go back to the 1993 season. Let’s look at our case history.
If you were paying attention this week, you saw the 5-5 Illini go to Iowa City, play excellent defense all day, and then get confused and play prevent defense on first down after a phantom defensive holding call extended a late Hawkeye drive. A virtually untouched 40-or-so-yard touchdown run followed, after which the Illini were unable to respond.
Illinois continued to relentlessly throw the ball with reckless abandon as they led the Hawks in the second half. Iowa’s offensive drives were eating much more clock. Quarterback John Paddock had a number of passes batted at the line of scrimmage, yet no amount of near-catastrophic results would dissuade the Illini from trying to move the ball through the air.
The loss dropped them to 5-6 on the season and put them in the situation they’re now in.
Lovie Smith’s Illini had rallied from a 2-4 start with three straight wins to get to 5-4 in early November but were quickly overwhelmed in East Lansing. Unable to establish an offensive rhythm, the Illini also couldn’t stop a relentless Michigan State rushing attack and at one point trailed 28-3.
MSU just kind of stopped running the ball for some reason in the second half, and Josh Imatorbhebhe made a pair of iconic plays to lead Illinois back. A 75-yard pick-six for Sydney Brown (followed by a missed extra point) was part of the chaotic comeback that really is one-of-a-kind. How many 25-point comebacks have you ever seen where the trailing team throws an interception from their own end zone to the 9 yard line while it’s in progress?
The Illini improved to 6-4, making their first bowl game since 2014. They put up a fight against Iowa before effectively throwing the finale against Northwestern by resting every starter who had ever appeared on an injury report.
Interim head coach Bill Cubit took advantage of a soft non-conference schedule and inept opposing coaches in Mike Riley and Darrell Hazell to produce a surprising 4-1 start. Close losses to Iowa and Wisconsin followed before a 39-0 blasting at the hands of Penn State, but Darrell Hazell Purdue was there to provide a win (which is of course not a given). The Illini stood at 5-4 needing one win in the last three games to go bowling for the second year in a row.
Against #3 Ohio State, the Illini reached the Buckeye 30 yard line five times and turned that into three points thanks to a missed field goal, a fumble and two turnovers on downs. Against Minnesota, the defense that had been so stout against the run all year overran Shannon Brooks as he ran 75 yards for a late game-breaking touchdown. Illinois had a trick up their sleeve for the finale against Northwestern though.
The day of the Northwestern game, they announced that Cubit would become the full time head coach on a two year deal and a shoestring budget, with interim AD Paul Kowalczyk famously declaring the move to be “not ideal, but for now I don’t think it’ll be a dagger to the heart of the program.”
Illinois lost 24-14 as Cubit’s offense, which just used a bunch of different alignments to run the same 3 plays, had long since been solved.
Embattled head coach Tim Beckman had somehow defeated James Franklin to advance his record to 5-6 in his third year. Everyone wanted the doofus fired, and yet with a bowl game on the line against 5-6 Northwestern, his Illini put up 47 points thanks to a stellar day from Mikey Dudek. Beckman would reflect on his haters by saying that “it’s kind of a giggle now, it really is, it’s kind of a giggle” that anyone would doubt the Illini.
Former Illini Houston Bates would have a monster day playing defensive end for Louisiana Tech in the ensuing bowl game, which the Illini of course lost.
It’s certainly hard to imagine Illinois hammering Purdue in Champaign to seize the Cannon, but that’s just what they did to improve to 5-3 on the year on the 30th of October. Come November, a trip to Michigan awaited. The Illini had an active two-game winning streak against the Wolverines and looked well on their way to make it three, but their usually-fearsome defense could not contain Tate Forcier of all people, who repeatedly found Roy Roundtree for huge yardage. The Illini ended up losing 67-65 in triple overtime, a score that had a higher total than both men’s basketball games between the two schools that year.
Their senior day opponent was Minnesota, which had just fired Tim Brewster following a 1-9 start. After trailing 17-7 at half, the Fighting Illini leaned on Mikel Leshoure to build a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter.
Seven and a half minutes of game time later, De’Leon Eskridge would cap off an 80-yard game winning touchdown drive to leave head coach Ron Zook dazed and confused.
Their final opportunity to go bowling was at Wrigley Field, where Northwestern was starting a new tradition of one-way football, necessitated by the small dimensions of the ballpark. Northwestern, then at the height of “CHICAGO’S BIG TEN TEAM,” would paint the park purple!
Mikel Leshoure put up 330 rushing yards, all in the same direction, to emphatically place the Illini in the postseason. Northwestern quickly abandoned the Wrigley Field concept and hasn’t been back since...or at least that’s what one would hope they would do. A reasonable football program would do this.
You know what a reasonable football program wouldn’t do? Play Western Michigan at Ford Field in the regular season! After taking down a very good Iowa team to move to 5-4, the Illini had a November game in Detroit against Bill Cubit’s Broncos. The eventual Texas Bowl runners-up led Illinois 23-10 early in the fourth quarter. The Orange and Blue cut the lead quickly to 6, where it remained until the game ended.
Mike Locksley’s offense with a healthy Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn could only put up 17 points against Bill Cubit’s Western Michigan Broncos.
It felt so good to beat Locksley this year for this game alone.
Illinois returned home to take on Ohio State in a game that seemed like it could be within reach until Buckeye back Beanie Wells jumped all the way over Donsay Hardeman. The game felt insurmountable at that point, but there was still one more opportunity left to make a bowl. Three turnovers proved decisive in a 27-10 loss to Northwestern.
A year after the upstart Illini won 8 games for a long-awaited resurgence, the 2000 season got derailed by a couple of fumble-related calls at the Michigan game that were so bad that the Big Ten implemented instant replay the next year to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. Illinois lost to both Michigan and Michigan State by just four points, so they certainly had opportunities to get win number six earlier but win 5 didn’t come until the antepenultimate game against Indiana.
8-2 Ohio State awaited a capacity crowd in Champaign, and Illinois not only opened the scoring but kept a lead into the second half. Ohio State gained a total of 29 first downs to Illinois’ 15, but fumbled twice, threw an interception and kicked four field goals.
Unfortunately for our heroes, the last of these was a 34-yard game-winner to make the final 24-21.
In the season finale at Northwestern, the Illini were laughed off the field by the Wildcats 61-23, which clinched a share of the conference title for them.
The next season, Illinois would win the Big Ten for what is certain to be the final time.
Of the 14 games described here, five were against Northwestern. Illinois went 2-3 in those games.
Do with this information what you will.