Illini face “must-win” against Indiana

By By: Stephen Bourbon

With four games left on the schedule, the Illinois football team knows there is no room for error if they want to reach a bowl game.

At 3-5 and needing three wins to become bowl-eligible, Saturday’s game against Indiana begins the final stretch to determine the Illini’s postseason fate.

“I do believe this is a very important game. It’s a must-win for us,” senior wide receiver Spencer Harris said. “We’ve got to get that confidence back that we can win games. And we can win them, we’re so close.”

The Illini, enduring an 18-game losing streak in conference games, were the closest to a Big Ten win last week at Penn State. Illinois held a lead within the final minute, but eventually lost 24-17 in overtime.

“I’d rather get beat by 50 than lose like that. That sucks,” Harris said.

The last team the Illini beat in conference was Indiana, at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind. The Hoosiers are a very different team than the one the Illini beat on Oct. 8, 2011. Two years ago, Indiana was just 1-11 on the season and finished the year without beating an FBS team.

In 2013, however, Indiana is in a similar position as Illinois — needing wins in three of its final four contests to become eligible for a bowl game. The Hoosiers have shown the ability this season to beat quality teams — the Hoosiers took down the Nittany Lions 44-24 on Oct. 5 — but haven’t strung together back-to-back victories all season.

One of the challenges that Indiana presents is a potent offense that ranks second in total offense in the conference and leads the conference with an average of 333.5 passing yards per game.

“Coach Wilson has done a great job with that offense,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “He’s done a good job recruiting his talent, and they’re in his third year now. They’re scoring a lot of points, as they did last year.”

After facing the conference’s top passer in Penn State’s Christian Hackenburg a week ago, the Illini now face a two-headed attack at quarterback in Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson. Sudfeld is a pure pocket passer, ranking fourth in the conference in passing yards with 1,915 while Roberson is more of a dual threat player. The sophomore has 724 passing yards and despite only churning out 161 yards rushing, Roberson has five rushing touchdowns.

The Illini are hoping to get cornerback V’Angelo Bentley back this week after he missed the past two games with a sprained ankle. Bentley was questionable last week and dressed for the game but did not see action. True freshmen Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap played in his absence.

One key to this Saturday’s game will be a fast start for Illinois. The Illini have fallen behind in the first half each of the past four games and gone on to lose all of those games. While Beckman was proud of the resilience of his team, he said that they cannot afford to fall behind in the future.

“They knew they had the opportunity to get back into the football game (against Penn State), and they did,” Beckman said. “We all know that the game comes down to a few plays. Well, we didn’t make those plays that we needed to make in that football game.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.