It’s hard to say which was Illinois’ worst loss of the season before Saturday’s clutch, and desperately needed, 27-24 upset victory at Maryland.
Was it the unsightly turnover fest against Penn State? The embarrassing blowout at Purdue? The inexcusable no-show offensively against Nebraska?
Each was awful, perhaps equally so, as the Illini’s record since last year’s exhilarating 7-1 start crash-landed to 3-8 overall and 1-6 in the Big Ten.
This was a bad team. Is it still?
“These guys can play with anybody,” coach Bret Bielema said after Caleb Griffin’s 43-yard field goal at the gun finished off the heavily favored Terrapins and gave the Illini (3-4) their first Big Ten win in four tries. “It’s just whether they want to do it, right? It doesn’t matter what we want as coaches; it’s what they want as players.”
But players are to blame in college football only when coaches are made of teflon, and Bielema hasn’t afforded himself that kind of comfort in three years on the job. He’s still the coach who was fired on the field after five seasons at Arkansas, his bold, brash plans for an SEC takeover having been driven into the dirt. And his staff at Illinois, particularly offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr., is nowhere close to having won the confidence of Illini fans.
It has long been posited — mostly by apologists — that Illinois is the type of place where it’s next to impossible to sustain success. That’s a load of excuse-laden bull, though. It always has been a matter of hiring the right coach, at which Illinois has been its own worst enemy. Unless, of course, Bielema is that guy. And he might be.
The Nebraska loss was awful, but we’ve said that already. Bielema claims it didn’t set him back.
“If you get your panties in a bunch over one week,” he said, “it’s going to go bad all the time.”
But Maryland week wasn’t just any week. It could have been a breaking point. Had the Illini fallen to 2-5 and 0-4 in the Big Ten, it would have felt like every single inch of progress under the Bielema regime had been lost, surrendered, wiped away.
There was a moment in the game in College Park that — at least in the afterglow — seems restorative. With a handful of ticks left in the first half, the Illini, down 14-7, faced a fourth-and-1 from the Maryland 2. The Illini had failed too many times this season in these situations, and Bielema ran out his field-goal unit. But Maryland called a timeout, and Lunney pleaded with Bielema to go for it. Bielema acquiesced, and hulking freshman running back Kaden Feagin — fourth on the depth chart entering training camp, now in the mix because of injuries to those who’d been in front of him — fought his way in for a touchdown.
The Illini took care of things from there, though it was hard. It’s always hard. It’s not supposed to be easy.
“I think it teaches guys what they can do, right?” Bielema said.
It might. There are games upcoming against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern. All those teams are beatable. There will be no excuses good enough to shield the man in charge if the season doesn’t end with some lower-tier bowl assignment or another.