For the first time in the Lovie Smith era, Illinois is bowl-eligible.
It’s been a long, strange trip here for Lovie and the Illini. In his first three years at the helm of the program, the team failed to top four wins in a single season, amassing a combined record of 9-27 (4-23 B1G). But something about this 2019 group, which currently sits at 6-4 (4-3 B1G), feels different.
Take it from those who know Lovie best.
“They’ve bought in,” Alex Brown, who played under Smith for six years with the Bears, recently said. “Lovie is changing the culture down there, and he’s getting everybody to believe.”
That belief was on full display in the Illini’s matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing last Saturday — a comeback victory of historic proportions that clinched the program a bowl berth for the first time since 2014. At one point trailing 28-3, the visitors rode a number of big plays, turnovers and big-play turnovers to storm back and snap a 37-34 victory from the jaws of certain defeat.
“When you play for Lovie, everybody is motivated… You’re never out of [a] game,” Matt Forte, five years a student of Smith in Chicago, said. “You can be down, and he knows that one play by anybody can start the turn of events.”
Olin Kreutz was with the Bears for seven of Smith's nine years coaching the team. “It was awesome to see Coach Smith get that win, because you know how hard he works at it,” he said. “And for his team to do it in a way that’s kind of ‘Lovie Ball’... It’s just what you expect from Coach Smith because that’s what he preaches.”
Illinois turned Michigan State over four times on Saturday, including a fourth quarter pick-six that cut the Spartans’ lead to just one point with 4:53 to play. On the season, the Illini lead the FBS in total turnovers (26), defensive touchdowns (6) and are second in turnover margin (1.4). Add those gaudy figures (and a bowl appearance) to a campaign already highlighted by a last-second victory over then-No. 6 Wisconsin, and suddenly, it might be time to start thinking about a full-blown resurgence in Urbana-Champaign.
“The most dangerous thing for that whole conference is a team that has bought into the Lovie system,” Lance Briggs, who spent eight years as a linebacker under Smith in Chicago, said. “The players that are going to come and play at the University of Illinois know now that they’re walking into a team that believes in what they’re doing, and when they believe in what they’re doing, great things are going to continue to happen.”
Smith has certainly proven in the past — and to the people of Chicago, no less — that he’s capable of executing this type of turnaround.
“I’m sure you guys have heard this story about our '05 team and how we started out 1-3, and then all of a sudden. Boom. It just happened,” Brown said. “That is exactly what I see happening with U of I right now.”
All the program has accomplished in 2019 is a great step, but the hope is that even greater things are on the horizon.
“You wait ’til next year. They are going to compete, and they’re gonna beat — I’m calling that right now — they’re gonna beat either Michigan or Ohio State next year,” Brown continued. “They have the people there. More importantly, they have the belief that they can beat ’em.”
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