Illini are officially going bowling

Illini+are+officially+going+bowling

By Tatiania Perry, Columnist

Before the game even started, I had two possible headlines written: “Illinois is going bowling!” or “Illinois still has two more chances at a bowl game, don’t fret.”

At halftime, I had a whole column written about how loss is OK, but in the fourth quarter, I deleted the whole thing.

One thing remained consistent. Illinois has a legitimate chance to go bowling for the first time in the Lovie Smith era.

Whether it be today or in the next two weeks, I didn’t think the Illini would end the regular season without securing a bowl game.

The injury bug had bitten the team hard. Linebacker Jake Hansen, defensive lineman Oluwole Betik and wide receivers Dominic Stampley and Ricky Smalling didn’t even travel with the team to East Lansing, Michigan.

Without key playmakers like Hansen and Betiku, the defense knew it would struggle but could ultimately pull it off. But with the ejection of linebacker Milo Eifler after he punched a Michigan State player in the butt following the first Michigan State touchdown, things only looked worse for Illinois.

From the moment Smith came to Illinois and the football team was not an immediately winning team, there were naysayers, saying things like, “I don’t how Lovie Smith at Illinois is a top-10 highest-paid coach,” “I don’t know why Illinois hired him” or “Illinois is just where coaches go to die.”

No, the Illini aren’t perfect, but in Smith’s time here, it is clear to see why he was a professional coach and why his defense is known.

Smith’s defense is made up of forced turnovers, scored points and negative plays for the opposing offense.

Currently, Illinois is first in the nation for turnovers gained (22) and forced recoveries (16), and the team also holds an impressive ranking for fumble recoveries (17) and defense touchdowns (5).

The Illini are second in the nation in points from turnovers (105), fourth in the nation in turnover margin (+1.33) and sixth in the nation in tackles for loss per game (8.4).

These are not the statistics of a bad coach. Sure, the wins don’t match the list of stats, but that is just what a transitioning team looks like.

Like many of Illinois’ teams over the years, the defense is getting big production from its linebackers, led by Dele Harding, Hansen and Eifler. The trio has combined for 240 tackles, 24.0 TFLs, five sacks, 10 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, four interceptions and three touchdowns this season alone.

As the classic saying goes, “first downs make touchdowns, but defense wins games.”

The defense has been turning around slowly but surely, and the Illini are now bowl eligible.

That’s not something I even thought I could say three years ago, but Illinois is going bowling, and we should be happy.

Even the naysayers should be ecstatic about how much this team has turned around and how much it has grown.

A note to the team: Please stop waiting until the last possible second to be great. It is really stressful.

@tati_perry14

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