Despite missed opportunity, Illini can still control Big Ten West
The West won't be won this weekend.
Illinois had a chance to wrap up the division title and its first berth in the Big Ten title game. Had the Illini beaten Michigan State last week and Purdue on Saturday, the race would be over.
Getting to face MSU the week after it played in-state rival Michigan is usually a gift from the schedule-makers, but the Spartans stayed focused and won 23-15 in Champaign.
"I couldn't sleep at night; all night, just tossing and turning," Illini QB Tommy DeVito said. "Every time I close my eyes, I just see these plays over and over. And it's like, what if I were to do this? What if I would've done that? It haunts you at night, but at the same time, makes you better and hungry for the next week."
Illinois led in total yardage 441-294 against MSU, but a turnover, missed red zone opportunities and poor field position proved costly.
"When you invest a lot and you believe in what you can do and you expect it to happen; when that doesn't happen, there's a tremendous amount of disappointment," Illini coach Bret Bielema said this week. "Maybe tenfold of what it's been in the past."
The No. 21 Illini still control their own destiny. By beating Purdue, then Northwestern on Nov. 26, Illinois would complete a sweep of all West opponents and clinch the division title, no matter what happens at No. 3 Michigan on Nov. 19.
If the Boilermakers find a way to win Saturday at Memorial Stadium, then all heck breaks loose. There could be a four-way tie for first place in the West, between the Illini, Purdue, the winner of Wisconsin-Iowa, and Minnesota if it beats Northwestern.
The Illini own plenty of tiebreakers against West teams, but those could go out the window in a three-way tie that involves Purdue.
This game was shaping up as a true battle for first place, but then the Boilermakers dropped two in a row to Wisconsin and Iowa. Jeff Brohm blamed himself for relying too much on veteran quarterback and former Stevenson standout Aidan O'Connell in last week's windy conditions. The Long Grove native completed 20 of 43 passes against the Hawkeyes with 2 interceptions.
The Illini defense leads the nation in scoring defense (10.4 points), total defense (232.2 yards) and interceptions (16).
"I think maybe in those conditions we may have asked the passing game to be too precise and we didn't get open a whole lot," Brohm said. "I think Aidan knows that he can play better and we're going to try to help him play better."
With temperatures expected to dip into the 30s by Saturday, Illinois will continue to rely on running back Chase Brown, the nation's leading rusher with 1,344 yards. Bielema was asked to describe Brown's running style on Thursday.
"He's unique. He glides, he runs, he stutters," he said. "I always say as a running back you usually fall into three categories -- a speed, a power or a shift. He has the ability to run away from you, run through you and make you miss, and that's very uncommon."
The Illini announced a contract extension for offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. this week through the 2025 season. Lunney is in his first season on the job after moving from UTSA.