Illinois football’s underdog mentality will be an advantage in the 2019 Redbox Bowl

Head+coaches+Justin+Wilcox+and+Lovie+Smith+stand+next+to+the+Redbox+Bowl+trophy+during+a+press+conference+on+Dec.+27+at+the+Hyatt+Regency+in+San+Francisco.+

Jonathan Bonaguro

Head coaches Justin Wilcox and Lovie Smith stand next to the Redbox Bowl trophy during a press conference on Dec. 27 at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff Writer

The Illinois football program has had a rough few years, there’s no sugar-coating it.

The head coach Lovie Smith era has seen dazzling highlights but also a not-so-great record.  

Although the core Illini fans remained loyal, there were certainly negative comments being made from, pretty much, anyone who watched an Illinois football game.

Then Illinois beat Wisconsin.

Illinois trailed by as many as 13 points and faced a 23-14 deficit with six minutes to play before rallying for a 24-23 victory on James McCourt’s walk-off 39-yard field goal to complete the biggest upset in college football this season.

The  24-23 win over No. 6 Wisconsin on Homecoming was the Illini’s first victory over a top-10 team since beating No. 1 Ohio State 28-21 in 2007. 

It also snapped a string of 24 straight losses to AP-ranked opponents dating back to a 17-14 win over No. 22 Arizona State on Sept. 17, 2011. 

The upset was followed up with a win over Purdue, just to prove the proceeding victory wasn’t a fluke.

Illinois followed up by beating Rutgers, but it was a victory over Michigan State that secured the bowl game and became the reassurance fans needed to truly believe that Illinois was a new team.

The 25-point comeback win at Michigan State on Nov. 9 was the biggest comeback in the 1,260-game program history.

Illinois trailed 28-3 in the second quarter and 31-10 entering the fourth quarter, at which time ESPN’s win probability calculator gave the Spartans a 99.6% chance to at a victory. The 21-point deficit entering the fourth quarter is tied for the largest fourth-quarter comeback in a Big Ten game in the last 40 seasons.

This is the season Illinois has been building up to, and proof of a system Lovie Smith has preached about for years. This is the process everyone was told to trust. 

When Illinois takes the field on Monday, it will mark the 19th bowl game appearance in program history. A win in Santa Clara would also mark the first bowl victory since winning the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco as well as the first seven-win season since 2011

Although there are three players on the team who’ve played in a bowl game, this is the first time any of them will have the block I on their chest while playing.

For the seniors like Reggie Corbin and Dele Harding, this game is the final product of the work they’ve put in in the last four years.

But for the underclassmen, this is the start of something new. This is the team they signed up to play for.

This team isn’t a team made up of No. 1 recruits, but one of underdogs who’ve fought every step of the way, buying into Lovie Smith’s long-term plan and executing it.

There was a lot of blood, sweat and hard work that brought this team to the Bay Area, Harding said. And they don’t plan to leave empty-handed.

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