IOWA CITY — They’ve gone from a punchline to a bowl game. In about a month.
This is not the same Illinois football team you saw the previous three years of head coach Lovie Smith’s tenure. It’s not the same football team you saw in September.
The Illini lost at home to Eastern Michigan on Sept. 14, 34-31, the first of four consecutive losses that dropped their record to 2-4 and presumably added a few more logs to the fire under Smith’s already considerably hot seat. But a shocking 24-23 walk-off upset of sixth-ranked Wisconsin started a four-game win streak that has Illinois at 6-4, bowl eligible and on a roll as it comes to Kinnick Stadium for Saturday’s game against the Iowa Hawkeyes.
“We like the position we’re in,” Smith said. “Life is a lot better when you’re winning football games and accomplishing more than you have in the past. Seeing the program heading in the right direction, we are all in better spirits leading up to game week.”
Smith, of course, was an accomplished NFL coach who took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl. After being let go as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Illinois surprised a lot of people with his hiring in the spring of 2016.
He had never been a college head coach and hadn’t been in the college game for 19 years. Illinois went 3-9 in his first season, 2-10 in his second and 4-8 last season.
This experiment seemed to be an epic fail. Then came this kind of out-of-nowhere win streak, one that included rallying from 28-3 down two weeks ago at Michigan State for a 37-34 win.
The Illini outscored the Spartans in the fourth quarter, 27-3.
“I think it all just starts, you go back when Coach Smith got hired over there,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz. “Lovie is a tremendous football coach, tremendous human being and a very accomplished coach. His resume speaks for itself, and he’s had success a lot of different places. From my vantage point, outside looking in, he went there with a plan four years ago and stuck with that plan. Their administration believed in the plan, they’ve stayed the course, and you’re really starting to see it pay dividends for them right now.”
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Illinois has supplemented its roster with transfers, including starting quarterback Brandon Peters (Michigan), leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (USC) and starting right guard Richie Petitbon (Alabama). It leads the nation in defensive touchdowns (6), turnovers gained (26), forced fumbles (17), fumble recoveries (16) and turnover margin (+1.40).
That goes back to Smith and his background as an excellent defensive coach.
“As a coach, OK, what do you need to do to win football games?” he said. “I think all coaches would tell you since the beginning of time, the turnover ratio is important. The defensive side, you control that. Whenever there’s a play, there’s a live ball, you have a chance to take that ball away. You can’t just give lip service to something, you have to preach it constantly and teach it. That’s exactly what we do. Our coaches do a great job of it.”
And if the Illini need any more motivation, they can just reflect on last year’s game between these teams, a 63-0 drubbing by Iowa in Champaign. That’s the largest margin of victory in the Ferentz era with the Hawkeyes.
“I’ve been coaching a long period of time, but I can’t say I’ve been on a team that has been beaten soundly like that very often. So when you play a game like that, you want a chance to redeem yourself. We have a lot of guys of character. A lot of us are embarrassed by that. We’re just excited we get a chance to do something about it. The rematch is here.”
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