Sometimes, college football was a way of reminding those of us who write about it, or comment on it, that we really have no early idea what we’re talking about.
And such is the case out in the Big Ten West, where in this 2015 season, up is down and down is up—and even as we enter Week 6, the race for the divisional crown is as wide open as it was back in Week 1.
The division’s two (supposed) titans, Nebraska and Wisconsin, are on the ropes; the ‘Huskers are reeling after a series of heartbreaking defeats and currently stand on 2-3 on the year, while the Badgers—a team that actually did manage to hang in there for a bit against mighty Alabama back in the season opener—are sitting at 3-2, having just lost to Iowa in a key early-season divisional test.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Hawkeyes are soaring at 5-0–something that, in truth, nobody saw coming–and the Northwestern Wildcats, resurgent under Pat Fitzgerald, are playing defense at such a high level that it’s entirely possible that they could go on to win the Big Ten title.
And then there’s Illinois.
Remember them? Last time you probably heard anything about the Illini, they were in the news for all of the wrong reasons. After a university investigation found merit to claims that he coerced players to play through injuries, former coach Tim Beckman was forced out–and he was forced out, inconveniently enough, literally days before the season was to kick off against Kent State.
Former Western Michigan coach was installed as Beckman’s replacement, and though Cubit had a record of success in leading WMU, the prevailing thought in Big Ten country at the time was that the Illini were going to be in for a long, rocky season. After all, you don’t lose your coach the week before the start of the season and move on as if nothing happened.
Unless, of course, you somehow do.
Heating into a key two-game stretch that will see them take on both the No. 22 Hawkeyes and the struggling Badgers, Cubit’s Illini are a surprising 4-1. Though their embarrassing Week 3 loss to an average-at-best North Carolina team stands out as an obvious black mark on this young season (the Illini were outclassed in every way that day, losing 48-14), you have to give this bunch for rallying in the two weeks since. First game a hard-fought if not exactly beautiful 27-25 win over Middle Tennessee State in Week 4, followed by a win last week that nobody could have predicted.
No, the 2015 Cornhuskers are hardly a vintage Nebraska squad, and yes, that team is still adjusting to the leadership and new systems of new coach Mike Riley. But are they more talented than Illinois? Yes, of course they are. That talent wasn’t enough, however, against an Illinois team that, even after falling behind 13-0 in the third quarter, showed some really impressive guts–and really impressive fight–down the stretch. Behind the play of quarterback Wes Lunt, the Illini rallied to score 14 points in the fourth quarter, sealing with unexpected win with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Lunt to Geronimo Allison with just ten seconds left to play.
Afterward, Cubit raved about his team’s resolve–their absolute refusal to give up–and also said the win could represent a turning point for a team, and a program, that has endured so much off-the-field trouble in the past two years.
“I don’t even know what to tell you. All I can do is tell you about the kids’ resolve on the sidelines, never believing they were going to lose,” he said, according to IlliniFB.com. “They just kept it up the whole time there. … But I’m not stunned because of the type of kids we got. Boy, I’m sure proud of those kids and I’m just happy be to be here.”
Might we read too much into this one game? Might it be a mistake to say that, because the Illini played one great quarter of football after play three quarters or poor football, that their season might be saved? It is a bridge to far to say that this program, with an interim coach, is on the verge of a turnaround?
Sure, of course.
But at the very least, that win last week–and the fact that this team is 4-1 after five weeks of play–is a sign that these players haven’t given up, and never thought of given up, on their 2015 season.
In a Big Ten West that remains there for the taking, that makes Illinois a real factor–and a team to be reckoned with.