Column | Winning is fun: The Illini now control their destiny

Junior+running+back+Chase+Brown+rushes+past+a+Minnesota+offensive+player+on+Saturday.+

Sydney Laput

Junior running back Chase Brown rushes past a Minnesota offensive player on Saturday.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

As I opened Twitter on a cold evening in October, a group of fans determined to inform the world of their wish for the Illini to play in the Rose Bowl caught my eye. Usually, this tweet would not garner much attention, excluding an individual or two who may stop by to leave a comment expressing their amusement with the idea. On this night, however, I studied the short tweet over and over in my mind thinking, ‘Is this actually possible?’

The Illini enter week eight of the college football season with a 6-1 record, the nation’s top overall defense and sitting at No. 18 in the most recent AP Poll. Fans are filling Memorial Stadium for the first time in years, and there is no other word to describe the program’s current state except: exciting. While a Rose Bowl appearance is still a long way away, the Illini control their own destiny with five games remaining, so let’s look at how the rest of this season can unfold.  

A bye week will serve the Illini well as they recover from injuries, get much-needed rest and plan for the final stint of the season. Head coach Bret Bielema and his players made it crystal clear that six wins and a bowl game does not satisfy them, as they get two weeks to prepare for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

The Cornhuskers mark the fifth rematch of 2022 for the Illini, who are undefeated in the previous four. Sitting at 3-4, this would seem to be an easy win considering how hot the Illini are, but this is not a team to take lightly. The Cornhuskers average almost 30 points per game and boast a top-tier fanbase that will have nearly 86,000 in attendance for the matchup on Oct. 29. 

If the Illini play a clean game, they should emerge victorious from a harsh environment. The raucous crowd will groom them for Ann Arbor later in the season, but before that comes the final homestand of the year. The Michigan State Spartans will not visit Champaign with a winning record — a surprise to many after the team’s Peach Bowl championship in 2021.

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    This will likely be the second easiest remaining game regarding matchups for the Illini, as the Spartans have a terrible defense this season that is easily exploited. With a packed Memorial Stadium, a ‘Chase Brown for Heisman’ statement is imminent, in a game that will potentially launch the Illini to 8-1. 

    Gaining more momentum as weeks go on, the Illini will finish their home schedule with the first of consecutive games facing formidable foes. The Purdue Boilermakers present a veteran-led air attack unlike any the Illini have faced so far.

    This game lingers as a potential decider for the Big Ten West division and is a question mark for the Illini due to their unfamiliarity with successful passing offenses. The Boilermakers, however, are lacking in the defensive department. Still, early scoring could transfer the weight of the Illini offense from Brown to sixth-year senior quarterback Tommy DeVito, which we have yet to see in comeback fashion.  

    The opportunity may arise again the succeeding week as a matchup with the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines poses the most challenging test of the season. The reigning Big Ten champions flaunt elite playmakers on both sides of the ball, a big reason they have won 19 of their last 21 games, trailing only the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs during that span. A win is unlikely for the Illini, as slowing down an offense averaging 43 points per game will be difficult, but never say never.

    Regular season play comes to a close in Evanston, Ill., where the Illini will take on the in-state rival Wildcats. The mission to win consecutive games against the Wildcats for the first time since 2010–2011 should be easy this season against a team currently looking up at the Big Ten standings with a 1-5 record.

    There are multiple versions of how the Illini season will finish, with three favorable matchups, one 50/50 and one tall task. Bielema and co. have done a superb job preparing the team for every matchup and not allowing success to infiltrate their mindset. If this mentality extends through the season’s end, the Illini can reasonably finish with a solid bowl matchup and likely a division crown. 

    Ultimately, it all comes back to the Illini controlling their fate. No matter how the season ends, what the Illini have accomplished so far is nothing short of incredible, and their dominance is inspiring for the future. However, as I laid back and resumed my scroll through social media, a smile trickled over my face while I pondered the different outcomes of continued Illini success. Winning is fun … who knew?

     

    @benfader7

    [email protected]