Loss against Broncos is whole new low for Illini

By Kyle Betts

You may have thought the Illini reached a low point this season against Minnesota during Homecoming or at Wisconsin a few weeks ago, but then there was Saturday.

In a loss that can be described using several inappropriate words (which I won’t use because this is a family column), Illinois (5-5, 3-3 Big Ten) laid the egg in embarrassing fashion against the Western Michigan Broncos at Ford Field, 23-17.

Not to take anything away from a very impressive Western Michigan team, but the Illini looked about as bad as the team that plays in Detroit on Sundays.

Had Illinois won this game, the team would have finally reached that elusive sixth win plateau and become bowl eligible. In that more perfect world, this column would speculate about all the places the Illini might find themselves come December. I’d be weighing the pros and cons of going to the Insight Bowl versus the Motor City Bowl (although there’s really no contest). Perhaps I’d even be dreaming of a trip to the Capital One Bowl.

But alas, no such luck.

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While there’s still technically a chance Illinois could find themselves punching their ticket to some obscurely sponsored postseason game, I’ve just about run out of hope. There will be no bowl for the Illini in 2008.

Currently, there are six teams in front of the Illini in the Big Ten standings (Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa).

With Penn State’s loss to Iowa this weekend, this all but assures a Big Ten team will not be playing for the BCS Championship Game, which closes up one more bowl game spot for Illinois. With that being said, it appears there will be either six or seven Big Ten teams making bowl appearances this season – as opposed to the eight teams last year.

With some luck, Illinois could crawl into the Motor City Bowl, but luck hasn’t been on the Illini’s side.

In order to get back to Detroit (Is that really better than not going to a bowl?), Illinois will definitely have to win one of their next two games against either Ohio State or Northwestern. In my opinion though, they will likely need to win both.

But don’t count on that happening.

While the team does seem to play significantly better against stronger competition, I don’t believe that’s going to be enough on its own to take down the Buckeyes next week.

Since Terrelle Pryor took over at quarterback, Ohio State has become a multidimensional offensive team that’s tough to cover. On the defensive side of the ball, they will pressure Illini quarterback Juice Williams unlike anything he has yet to see this season. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Western Michigan, it’s that Juice does not like it when defenders are hitting him. Too bad this is football.

As for Northwestern, they’ve been performing well beyond preseason expectations but playing in front of the small crowd at Ryan Field will only hurt the Illini.

Again, the Illini play up to their competition but they (particularly the offense) also seem to perform more efficiently on the big stage. Ryan Field, however, is not a big stage … unless you’re comparing it to high school stadiums.

Again, Illinois will need to win at least one more game to become eligible. In order to impress bowl game officials though, they’ll most likely need to win both those games or handily defeat Ohio State. Neither of which I see coming true. Call me a pessimist, but that’s what watching this team has done to me.

More importantly than their opponents though, Illinois doesn’t have the will to be a bowl team. I’ve gained a bunch of respect for the Broncos after what they did to Ron Zook’s squad, but no team hoping to play in a bowl should have lost this game.

If you’re a big time school from a big time conference, you should act like one. The Illini didn’t look like they wanted it, and thus, they don’t deserve it.

That’s no bull.

Kyle Betts is a graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]