Smith brings welcome gift of bowl trip to Illini

  • For its first bowl game in five years, Illinois was sent to the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., where they'll face California on Dec. 30. Coach Lovie Smith talked about getting his first bowl bid Sunday.

    For its first bowl game in five years, Illinois was sent to the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., where they'll face California on Dec. 30. Coach Lovie Smith talked about getting his first bowl bid Sunday. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 12/8/2019 8:57 PM

Love Smith's Santa beard will come in handy now that his Fighting Illini will be bowling for the holidays.

Illinois was selected to play in the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif. on Dec. 30. The opponent is California (7-5), which will be much closer to home, but there are plenty of Illinois alums working in Silicon Valley, so athletic director Josh Whitman is expecting a good turnout.

 

This is the first bowl game for the Illini since the 2014 season, a loss to Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The school's last bowl win happened in the Bay Area, a 20-14 victory over UCLA at the home of the San Francisco Giants in 2011.

On Sunday in Champaign, Smith talked about being happy with this season's progress, but with an eye on higher-profile bowl assignments in the future.

"I continue to talk about being relevant again in college football," Smith said. "That's where we're headed. The best football team I feel like we've had in a long time is the one we have coming up next year.

"In order to get that ball rolling a little it with momentum, we've got to finish up strong. Big difference between 6-7 and 7-6 for us. Getting that seventh win is pretty important."

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Smith's fourth season on the job featured some incredible highs -- beating No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 on a walk off field goal on Oct. 19, then a 37-34 win at Michigan State on Nov. 9 after trailing 31-10 entering the fourth quarter.

"I'll tell my great grandkids about that (MSU) game," senior wide receiver Caleb Reams from Gurnee said recently.

At the start of the year, the Illini were relying heavily on some transfers to fill in at key positions, and the results were pretty much best-case scenario.

Quarterback Brandon Peters, a grad transfer from Michigan, gave the offense some experienced leadership. Former USC receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe led the Illini in every receiving category by a wide margin.

On defense, former USC defensive end Oluwole Betiku led team with 8 sacks, and Washington transfer Milo Eifler was the team's fifth-leading tackler.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The goal is to become Big Ten champ someday. Our program will eventually get there," Smith said. "We're not going to apologize for having six wins. We're not going to apologize for being 2-4 and making a run.

"We're going to be excited about where we are right now, about going to a bowl game. We're excited about Redbox Bowl. This is going to be a great experience for our program. To reward those 17-18 seniors that have meant so much to our program, we're excited for them."

Illinois probably set a good example for the rest of the college football world. Coaches at Florida State and Arkansas were fired recently during their second seasons on the job. The Illini struggled for three years with Smith, but it takes time to build success at a program that is in a bad place.

"Staying the course, having faith -- that part's not hard," Whitman said. "I knew when we were sitting at 2-4, we had a group of people over there that were doing everything possible to turn it. It wasn't hard for me to have faith that the program was changing. It was hard not to tear up after that Wisconsin game just knowing all that has gone into making a victory like that possible."

The Big Ten placed nine teams in bowl games, including Ohio State in the playoff. The Buckeyes were given the No. 2 seed and will face Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 28.

Two teams are headed to the New Year's Six -- Wisconsin returns to the Rose Bowl to face Pac-12 champ Oregon, while Penn State will face Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.

One interesting matchup is Michigan vs. Alabama on Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl. Minnesota makes a step up in bowl status by facing Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Iowa will face USC in the Holiday Bowl, Indiana vs. Tennessee in the Gator Bowl and Michigan State vs. Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

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