There’s something special going on at Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

There’s something special going on at Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

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,” said Matt Forte, five years a student of Smith in Chicago. “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. This 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,” said Lance Briggs, who played nine seasons as a linebacker under Smith in Chicago. “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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University of Illinois bowl-eligible for the first time under Lovie Smith following amazing comeback win

University of Illinois bowl-eligible for the first time under Lovie Smith following amazing comeback win

Lovie Smith—who is no stranger to improbable comebacks—has indeed done it again. The University of Illinois head coach led the squad to a wild comeback win over the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday.

Of course, any time Smith leads a squad to a huge comeback win, what first comes to mind is the Bears' now-infamous comeback win in the desert against the Arizona Cardinals in 2006.

That was the matchup at the University of Phoenix Stadium where the Bears trailed the Cards 20-0 before rallying to finish with a one-point, 24-23 win. That was the first time in Bears franchise history that they were able to win a game after trailing by at least 20 points in the second half. This was the same kind of magic that Lovie conjured up on Saturday night to lead U of I to the monumental win.

At one point during Saturday's game, the Illini were down 28-3 and, shortly thereafter, they were down 31-10 following a 46-yard Brandon Peters touchdown pass to and a Michigan State field goal that stretched their lead to 21 points.

At the end of the third quarter, Michigan State's win probability was a whopping 99.6%.

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke, who had two interceptions in the first quarter, rebounded and led the Spartans to two scoring drives in the second quarter. In that period, he had a touchdown pass to Tre Mosley and led MSU to another touchdown drive before the field goal in the third that made the score 31-10 MSU.

That field goal to stretch the lead to 21 was the last MSU score before the start of the Illinois comeback for the ages.

The Illini defense, which was the sixth-worst in the Big Ten in opponents points per game coming into Saturday night, held the Spartans to six second-half points and scored a touchdown on an exciting 76-yard interception return.  This set up the stage for Illini quarterback Brandon Peters, who threw two touchdowns in the final frame, including the game-winning five-yard strike to Daniel Barker.

The thrilling comeback win clinches bowl eligibility for the Fighting Illini under Smith, and represents the best stretch of Smith's collegiate career to this point. U of I's has now rattled off four consecutive wins over No. 6 Wisconsin, Purdue, Rutgers and now MSU. 

Saturday's comeback victory over the Spartans was the biggest comeback in program history and has set up the Illini for a great close to their season.

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2020 vision? Lovie Smith adds three to upcoming class

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NBC Sports Chicago

2020 vision? Lovie Smith adds three to upcoming class

Illinois and head coach Lovie Smith hosted several of the state's top-ranked names on Saturday for a Junior Day event. And so far, it's paid dividents. The Fighting Illini have added two big in-state verbal commitments over the last 24 hours: Marist's four star-ranked wide receiver Jadon Thompson (6-foot-2, 170 pounds) and Simeon's three star-ranked offensive guard Marcus Harper (6-foot-4, 290 pounds). 

Thompson, who posted his commitment via a video on his Twitter account Monday afternoon, discussed why he decided to give the Fighting Illini his verbal commitment.

"I chose Illinois because it simply felt like home," Thompson said. "From the first time I visited Illinois...just got better every time."

Harper, who gave Illinois his verbal commitment on Sunday afternoon, felt a desire to remain close to home as one of the keys factors in his decision. 

"I decided to commit to Illinois because it's my home state. I fit well into the system and I really connected with the guys on the team and the coaches," Harper said. "Instead of asking why I committed to Illinois to me it's more of why not commit to them instead."

Harper, who played his junior year at Homewood-Flossmoor before transferring to Simeon this semester chose the Fighting Illini over scholarship offers from schools such as Michigan State, Oregon, Nebraska, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas State and Cincinnati.

Thompson also discussed why he decided to give Illinois his early verbal commitment.

"Why wait?"according to Thompson. "Now I can go out and recruit and get more players to join me at Illinois. What's better than playing for your home state?"

Illinois also added a third verbal commitment in the Class of 2020 on Sunday: St. Louis (Mo.) Trinity Catholic four star-ranked RB Reggie Love (5-foot-10, 185 pounds). Love was also a nationally sought-after recruit with an impressive scholarship offer sheet.