Say what you want about the Illini, they’re bowl-bound

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  • Illinois’ Reilly O’Toole high fives fans after the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. on Saturday. The Illini won 47-33 to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011. 

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EVANSTON, ILL. — Say what you want about Illinois football. Say what you want about Tim Beckman.

With a 47-33 win over Northwestern in the season finale, Illinois exceeded expectations this season. The Illini are bowl eligible and Beckman should keep his job. Such a statement seemed laughable some two months ago, when Illinois went on a three-game skid that included a loss to a pitiful Purdue team.

But it is reality.

The Beckman-led Illini are going bowling. Where exactly the game will be and who the opponent is are both yet to be determined.

But does it really matter?

The scene after the game was something few predicted. Fans clad in orange and blue clustered along the front rows at Northwestern’s Ryan Field as the team celebrated. Chants of “BECK-MAN, BECK-MAN,” were heard. The Land of Lincoln Trophy was hoisted into the air. It was a euphoria not felt by Illini players and fans in a long time.

They have a right to relish the victory over “the team from up north.”

Saturday’s game was the quintessential Illinois vs. Northwestern battle. Both teams entered the game 5-6 in a fight to see which mediocre team would reach postseason play. For two programs that have seen their fair share of losing seasons and mediocrity, it was fitting.

Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole played arguably the best game of his career. He passed for 147 yards and three touchdowns and added another 147 yards with his legs. But it was Illinois’ defense that carried the team in the first half and boosted it out to a 26-7 halftime lead.

Illinois caused five turnovers. For a team that came into the game ranked 107th in the nation in turnover margin, that was the difference. At one point in the first half, the Illini forced turnovers on four straight Northwestern possessions.

“The ball bounces your way, you’ve got to capitalize,” said linebacker Mason Monheim, who scored a touchdown on a 49-yard interception return in the fourth quarter. “We always preach turnovers. It’s a game changer.”

Northwestern made a second half push, pulling within eight, but couldn’t maintain it for long. Monheim’s touchdown all but sealed the game and sealed a bowl.

Postgame festivities were emotional. Beckman told the media after the game of the last time he had been at Ryan Field, in 2012 when Illinois finished its season 2-10 after a 50-14 beat down at the hands of the Wildcats.

“I walked in here and was as disappointed as a football coach as I could ever have been,” he said. “Not with our players, but the with way that our program had turned out. I felt that we needed to give more.

“I asked these seniors two years ago, then sophomores, to build this team to the future. Now we’re back and we’ve got six wins under our belt.”

Beckman knows expectations were low. He knows few people thought Illinois could beat Penn State and Northwestern in back-to-back games to reach a bowl.

That must make this win a little bit sweeter. Beckman will tell you himself: It’s not about him, it’s about the players. But this has to feel good — both on a team level and a personal one.

Athletic director Mike Thomas announced Beckman would return in 2015 on Sunday and the decision makes sense. You ask the man to come in here and win games. That’s what he’s done. No one said he had to make it pretty.

Once again, say what you want about Illinois football. Say what you want about Tim Beckman. But the 2014 Illini are heading to a bowl game, and nothing you say can take that away from them.

Sean is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @sean_hammond