Normally when we’re writing about Illinois football these days, it’s to poke fun at the Fighting Illini.
For a program that’s been lost in the dark for the better part of the last decade, it’s been fairly simple to do. It was so from the second Tim Beckman took over in 2012 and tried to recruit Penn State players in the wake of NCAA sanctions, it continued to be throughout his woeful tenure and it has been since Lovie Smith — apparently out of NFL chances — took over in 2016.
But enough of that. This time, we’re talking about the 3-2 Fighting Illini. Yes, that’s right. Through five games, Illinois has surpassed its win total from all of last season. One more, and it will be the most in a year for Smith. And not to get ahead of ourselves, but if the Illini somehow win three more, they’re in a bowl game.
“It's important because they need to know how to win,” graduate transfer quarterback AJ Bush said. "They need to know what it takes to win and how it feels to win, so when we win, then we can build that culture, build that experience with them and that just takes over and that's how you change the program.”
Whether Bush knows how you change a program is debatable, but he’s at least well-traveled considering he’s been at Nebraska and Virginia Tech with a junior college stop in between. And on Saturday in a 38-17 win at Rutgers, Bush was the catalyst, running for 116 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for another score.
In the process, the Illini snapped a 13-game Big Ten skid, dating to 2016 when it beat Michigan State.
“It's huge for the program,” senior guard Nick Allegretti said. "Really excited for everyone in that locker room to experience that first one and it won't be the last.”
This might be the best spot to pump the brakes just a bit on our Illinois victory train. See, the win did come against Rutgers, which is apparently serving as the get-well card for anything that ails teams. The Scarlet Knights, after all, are offering virtually no resistance, getting rolled on a weekly basis.
But to point that out would go against the theme today, which is there is actual hope in Champaign.
The Illini looked like a Big Ten team — well, kind of. They ran for 330 yards but threw for only 89. But again, we’re staying positive. We’re choosing to replay Mike Epstein shushing the crowd after a 41-yard touchdown run.
An Illinois player shushing the home crowd? Come on, that’s hilarious.
But it was good to, at least, see signs of life in the program. They’ll have another decent shot next week when they host Purdue, though a trip to Wisconsin after that is daunting.
But there’s some potential wins still out there on the schedule. And if Saturday’s win means anything, it’s that the players in that locker room believe they can compete.
“We came into (Saturday's) game thinking this was a game we absolutely could win," Allegretti told the Champaign News-Gazette. “I think that's how we're going to feel the rest of the season. We look at our Big Ten schedule, and the gap's close. From the top team to the bottom team, the Big Ten's a very close conference right now. Every game that we walk into, we're going to have an opportunity to play our best and win that football game.”
If that’s not hope, I don’t know what is.
No problem for Ohio State
Apparently, Ohio State is just bored these days. That’s the best way to explain the Buckeyes’ win over Indiana on Saturday when they held just a nine-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
Sure, Indiana is no pushover these days, but Ohio State is so far ahead of the rest of the conference right now and it’s not really close outside of Penn State, which OSU rallied to beat on the road last week. The Buckeyes responded Saturday by hitting the gas and cruising to a 49-26 victory, thanks to six touchdown passes from Dwayne Haskins.
Oh, and he threw for 455 yards, so throw that in, too.
“I'm not going to lie, we were probably still tired from last week,” Haskins said. “Definitely there was a little lower energy in practice during the week, but the best thing about today is we found a way to win. Even though it wasn't pretty at times during the game, football is about overcoming adversity.”
Not leading by enough is what counts as adversity for the Buckeyes. But the real question at this point is — can anyone left on the schedule beat them?
Probably not. Michigan State doesn’t block anyone, so that trip to East Lansing looks far less daunting than it did before the start of the season. That leaves the finale against Michigan as the last test. But that one’s in Columbus. So, unless there’s a dramatic shift, Buckeyes fans should start making travel plans for Indy.
'Puke it out'
Nebraska remains winless through five games after losing at Wisconsin on Saturday, and that might be making Cornhuskers fans sick.
While some believed first-year coach Scott Frost had a massive rebuild on his hands, no one expected the Huskers to be without a victory at this point. But give Frost credit for keeping it positive — kind of.
“I told the team that sometimes when you’re sick, you have to puke it out, and I really think last week was a turning point for us, believe it or not,” Frost said. “I saw a team come together. I saw a team practice the best it’s practiced all year. I saw a team start loving each other and holding each other accountable and team that came out and fought.”
That’s no small step for a team that hasn’t looked like everyone has been buying in. So, maybe he’s right. Maybe things are changing. Maybe the Huskers got it all out of their system.
If not, then at least they’ve got Bethune-Cookman on the schedule in three weeks.