Illini football content with bowl, not with season


Illinois’ Geronimo Allison drops a pass after being tackled during the game against Purdue at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 4. The Illini lost 38-27.

By Sean Neumann

Things weren’t looking good for the Illinois football team for most of the season.

After a 38-27 loss to Purdue on Oct. 4, a game in which Illinois expected an easy victory, the season had hit an all-time low.

“The faces in the locker room then were a lot different than the ones last Saturday,” linebacker Mason Monheim said, comparing the loss to the team’s most recent game: a 47-33 win over Northwestern to clinch a bowl berth. “I think it was a moment where not many words needed to be said. It was kind of a big, big eye-opener.”

There was a silence in the Illini locker room that Monheim said had never surrounded the team throughout the year. Illinois had allowed 551 total yards to a backup quarterback making his first career start and a Boilermaker team that hadn’t won a conference game in two years.

Monheim said there was a different feeling in practice the next week, with the doubts beginning to enter the players’ minds on whether they’d be able to reach six wins with a tough conference schedule ahead of them.

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“It was kind of a real make-or-break moment for us,” Monheim said. “Guys corralled together.”

Then, two weeks later, the Illini pulled off an upset win over Minnesota on Homecoming. Monheim said the emotional win jump-started the team’s performance for the rest of the season.

But head coach Tim Beckman saw the need to give his players one more boost following a 30-14 loss to Iowa. The team needed back-to-back wins to close out the season in order to reach a bowl game.

Illinois’ weekly Sunday meeting following the 30-14 loss was the most honest one the team had this season, Beckman remembered.

“One of our core values is honesty. That’s the first one,” Beckman said. “If you’re not playing right, you’re going to stand up and explain why you didn’t play right to your family.”

The Illini coach brought a few players up to the podium, and he sat down asking them questions as if he was the media during a postgame press conference.

“I asked them a couple questions that might have embarrassed them a little bit, and they answered them in front of the team,” Beckman said. “Maybe that was a reality to all of us that it’s important that everybody does their job to make sure that we’re successful.”

And it lit a fire under the Illini when they needed

it most.

The defense held Penn State to just 14 points while the offense chipped away and won on a last-second field goal. The next week, the Illini forced five turnovers in a 47-33 win at Northwestern.

“If you look at the three (conference) wins and look at what we’ve done in those three wins, we’ve played very good defense,” Beckman said. “Honestly, those three games were won because of our defense.”

That’s a statement Beckman likely wouldn’t imagine himself saying at the beginning of the season. The defense consistently posted the Big Ten’s worst defensive numbers throughout the year prior to Northwestern, allowing an average of 472.7 yards per game.

Defensive lineman Jihad Ward said he finally knew the Illini were on their way to clinching toward a bowl berth when they forced turnovers on four straight Wildcat drives in the first half, the most dominant the defense had been all year.

“It’s been a struggle throughout the season, but I’m glad we didn’t give up,” Ward said. “That was the craziest thing. It was the most amazing thing in my life, because there’s been struggles and a lot of people give up.”

Ward said he didn’t expect to reach a bowl game in his first NCAA season after transferring from junior college. The Philadelphia native said his story and his team’s resiliency is a lesson to his younger siblings back home.

“All my little brothers and sisters don’t really have anybody to look up to, and I’m the one they look up to,” Ward said. “It’s just amazing for me that I can go home and tell them what to do and the steps to reach their goal in whatever dream they want to chase.”

Struggling along, the Illini defense finally stepped up at the end of the year and carried the Illini to a bowl bid.

“By no means are we satisfied with six wins and by no means are we satisfied with the way the season went,” Monheim said. “But we made it.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter