It's incredible the difference a month can make. It was on Oct. 12 when Illinois, on a three-game losing streak to ruin a 2-0 start to its season, found itself behind No. 16 Michigan 28-0 in the first half at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. The Illini would rally, scoring 24 straight points to cut the deficit to 28-25, but fail to finish the job and lost 42-25. That comeback attempt was not as futile as it appeared at the time, however.
The Illini ripped off three straight wins after that Michigan loss, including a shocker over then No. 6 Wisconsin thanks to a last-second field goal. That same team found itself down 28-3 to Michigan State on Saturday afternoon.
This time, they would complete the comeback. The Illini outscored the Spartans 27-3 in the fourth quarter to beat the Spartans 37-34 and pick up their sixth win of the season.
WHAT A COMEBACK! 🤯@IlliniFootball fights back from down 25 points to defeat Michigan State. pic.twitter.com/J916KRgTz6— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 10, 2019
It was a remarkable turnaround inside a remarkable turnaround. Following that Michigan loss, most Illini fans were giving up hope. They'd seen this same story play out too many times in recent years. Fans were doing what fans do, and putting together their own search firms to find a replacement for Lovie Smith, who was all but certain to be fired at the end of what was going to be another disappointing season.
Now Illinois is 6-4 and bowl eligible for the first time since 2014, and only the fourth time since an unexpected Rose Bowl trip in 2007. All of which is a testament to the coach so many fans were ready to move on from, even if they didn't want to.
When Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman took over, the first thing he did was fire Bill Cubit. Cubit was a coach put in a bad position by an administration without a leader, and Whitman corrected the mistake. A few days later, Whitman announced he was hiring Lovie Smith to run his program. Many laughed at the idea, as Smith had recently been fired after he went 8-24 in two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure, he'd been to the Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears, but Smith hadn't coached at the college level since he'd been a defensive backs coach at Ohio State in 1995. Still, the hire excited a large portion of the fan base. Lovie Smith's name still carried plenty of weight in the state of Illinois, both due to his time with the Bears, as well as with the portion of the state more partial to the St. Louis Rams, where Smith had been a defensive coordinator.
Smith and Whitman also had a plan to build the program from the ground up. It wouldn't be a quick fix, and it hasn't been. During Smith's first three seasons, the Illini went 9-27 overall and only 4-23 in the Big Ten. If you looked past the record, though, you saw signs of progress. You saw the talent level of the roster increasing but unless that talent started to result in wins on the field, the foundation Smith had been trying to build would crumble.
That's why, a month ago, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, it looked like it all might come to an end. That's why, on Saturday against Michigan State, it was hard to believe Illinois would pull off the comeback.
Trailing 31-24 in the fourth quarter, Illinois' Sidney Brown picked off an errant Brian Lewerke pass and returned it 76 yards for a touchdown. It was a perfect moment for a team that, like all Lovie Smith teams, has proven to be quite adept at not only forcing turnovers, but scoring on them. The problem was Illinois kicker James McCourt picked a bad time to miss his first extra point of the year.
Instead of a tie game, Illinois trailed 31-30. Another comeback effort was about to come up short. Michigan State would extend the lead with a field goal, but left Illinois just over three minutes to get a game-winning touchdown. When the Illini faced a fourth-and-16 at midfield, it looked like another comeback effort would come up short, but Brandon Peters completed a pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe to pick up a first down.
A few plays -- and what must have felt like an eternity to Illinois and Michigan State fans -- later, Peters found Daniel Barker in the back of the end zone for a five-yard touchdown to give Illinois its first lead of the game.
That's the kind of confidence that Lovie Smith has instilled in his team. When nobody else believed in them, Lovie did. When Illinois fans were ready to move on, Illinois players rallied around Smith.
And when Illinois came back to beat Michigan State to win 37-34 and become bowl eligible, those same players lifted Smith up on their shoulders as they celebrated postgame.
It's incredible the difference a month can make.