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Illinois football players believe bowl berth is still possible

After Illinois’ 35-32 win at Minnesota on Saturday, Illini players were talking about something that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago — playing in a bowl game.

“It’s in everybody’s mind right now,” sophomore defensive tackle Corey Liuget said. “If we just keep doing our thing and play the way we’ve been playing, we can still make a bowl game.”

After a 1-6 start, in which Illinois lost all its games by double digits, the notion of the Illini playing in the postseason was downright laughable. But after an impressive 38-13 win against Michigan two weeks ago, Illinois’ win against Minnesota kept bowl hopes alive.

But history is against the Illini, with no Illinois team ever having overcome a 1-6 start to reach the postseason. In fact, the worst start to a season for a bowl-bound Illinois team was 3-4 in 1992.

Also standing in the way of Illinois’ bowl hopes is a tough end to the schedule, which boasts three teams that are already bowl eligible.

Northwestern will roll into town this weekend fresh off an upset of then-unbeaten No. 4 Iowa. The Illini then travel to Cincinnati to take on the currently undefeated No. 5 Bearcats. Rounding out the regular season will be a visit from the 6-3 Fresno State Bulldogs, whose only losses have come to No. 21 Wisconsin, No. 5 Cincinnati and No. 6 Boise State.

Topping three impressive opponents to end the season on a five-game winning streak would likely place the 6-6 Illini in a notable Big Ten-affiliated bowl, such as the Alamo Bowl or Champs Sports Bowl.

“I think most people on the team are thinking that,” freshman quarterback Jacob Charest said about making a bowl game. “We obviously have Cincinnati coming up, but we can’t look past Northwestern, especially since they just beat Iowa. But there’s no reason why we can’t win out and make a bowl game.”

Despite his players’ confidence, Illinois head coach Ron Zook warned against looking too far down the road.

“It’s very important that we keep going,” Zook said after the Minnesota game. “I told them that we’re going to enjoy this tonight and enjoy it tomorrow, and then we’re going to go back to work on Monday. We’re going to take this all one at a time.”

Charest pointed to the team’s play in the last two games as a source of optimism as the team eyes a possible bowl berth.

“We had a big win last week against Michigan, and after that, a lot of people were thinking, ‘Maybe this was a fluke,’” Charest said. “Some of us were probably thinking that it was a fluke, maybe we got lucky. But this proves that we’re a good team and we’re coming into our own.” Before the Michigan game, Illinois ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring offense and scoring defense. So what went wrong at the beginning of the season?

“I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows,” Charest said. “Something just snapped during the Michigan game, and we’re kind of rolling now.”

Nine Illinois teams have finished the regular season with a winning streak of five or more games. In 1971, Illinois won its last five games of the season after losing the first six games by an average of 24.3 points per game.

“Absolutely,” senior center Eric Block said when asked if Illinois could still make a bowl game. “But you can’t think about being 6-6 when you’re 3-6. You have to get to 4-6 first.”

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