Illinois can be like Ohio State


Quentin Shaw

Illinois quarterback Cam Thomas throws a pass on the move during the game against Wisconsin on Oct 28. The Illini lost 24-10.

By Orri Benatar, Contributing writer

If you’ve listened to Illini Drive, you probably know that I was born in Columbus, Ohio. More specifically, I was born at The Ohio State University hospital just a mile away from Ohio Stadium.

Throughout my first 18 years before enrolling at Illinois, I bled scarlet and gray. Every Saturday, the city of Columbus stopped whenever Ohio State would play. No matter the opponent or the score, the Shoe would have at least 100,000 people at every game.

In 2002 and 2015, the state of Ohio exploded in excitement after the Buckeyes won national championships. From Columbus to Cleveland, every citizen wears the colors of one of the best run college football programs with pride.

After Illinois was stomped 52-14 against Ohio State, in a game that only consisted of five Illini first downs and the Buckeyes scoring four first-quarter touchdowns, the attendance was an astounding 105,000. I felt slightly embarrassed of the game as one of the few Illinois reporters in the press box on that rainy evening. People weren’t gloating at me, but I felt jealous of all the Ohio State fans and reporters who get to talk about a winning team week in and week out almost every fall.

The Illini, however, should feel no shame in the result. This team is young, riddled with injuries and faced one of the greatest quarterbacks in Big Ten history.

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Ohio State was expected to dominate on every front, and they did.

Illinois’ 2017 football campaign is long over, but the journey has just begun for head coach Lovie Smith and Co. I guarantee that Illinois will never be a 38-point underdog against Ohio State again. A loss like this against any Big Ten team should not happen again in the Illini’s near future.

After almost three and half years in college, I thought I would be a bigger Illini football fan than a Buckeyes football fan at this point.

I am not.

Though, Illinois can and should win me over. This program has every opportunity to become a consistent Big Ten football school.

I’m talking about a team that can win six games a year minimum, and it’s almost a guarantee. The last time Ohio State won less than six games was 1988. I’m talking about a team that frequently has Heisman-caliber quarterbacks. In the last 10 years, the Buckeye quarterbacks have included Troy Smith, Terrelle Pryor, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett.

The Illini can become that team sooner than you think.

Cam Thomas has the potential to lead Illinois to a bowl game. Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner have the potential of being a J.K. Dobbins-Mike Weber style duo. Ricky Smalling can be the best receiver in the conference with his talent.

A defense and special teams with Bennett Williams, Stanley Green, Isaiah Gay, Bobby Roundtree and Blake Hayes can stop Big Ten running games and make sure they are always starting drives inside their own 25.

With Smith’s coaching pedigree, any recruit in the nation can look at Illinois and think their coaching staff can turn them into one of the approximately 250 men drafted into the NFL. Smith has already garnered recruits from Texas, Florida, Illinois and more.

It’s possible that Illinois doesn’t get six or more wins within most of these players’ college careers. Illinois can however, become a Big Ten program that consistently makes trips to conference title games and across the country to high-stakes bowl games in late December or early January.

One day, this will be the case.

One day, Illini fans won’t sit at home watching the Big Ten Network or putting their feet up on the five empty seats next to them in Memorial Stadium wondering, “When does basketball season start?”

Only one time in school history has Illinois gone four-straight seasons making a bowl game. This can happen again, and hopefully I can sit on my couch or at Lucas Oil Stadium watching with pride as the team I grew up with and the team I grew to love play against each other.

Mark my words: Big Ten Championship Game 2022 will be Illinois vs. Ohio State. In that moment, I would be happy to put on the orange and blue rather than the scarlet and gray. That time will come.

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