From the Couch: A shot at Big Ten West title seemingly ripped away in “The Big House”
Illinois had its spirits dashed in the worst way Saturday, as the Orange and Blue fell in the final seconds on a game-winning field goal by Jake Moody, losing 19-17 to No. 3 Michigan and keeping the Wolverines’ Big Ten title hopes alive ahead of a colossal tilt with No. 2 Ohio State Thanksgiving weekend.
For about 45 minutes of game time, the reality of an Illini upset looked entirely possible. Once again, Illinois showed why its defensive unit continues to remain one of the best in the country, only holding the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines to one touchdown the entire game.
The team didn’t quit under pressure and fought until the last snap. Trailing 7-3 at halftime, the Illini made some adjustments to get the offense moving in the right direction. The score eventually became 10-10 midway through the third quarter, and along with it came several defensive stops, including TFLs from Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown, among others.
Of course, though, the Illini did what it does best. Chase Brown, the nation’s leading rusher, carried the team on his back, accounting for two scores and 140 rushing yards. Both touchdowns put Illinois in a position to win the game until, suddenly, disaster struck. With the Illini to a one-point lead, 17-16, and a minute left, a fourth down miscue by the referees led to an illegal pick play that extended Michigan’s drive, on top of a phantom catch that helped increase the Wolverine’s field position to make the winning field goal attempt that much easier.
Bret Bielema was visibly frustrated upon the game’s conclusion, giving an earful to the officials, and letting his presence be known that his team, whether the Big Ten likes it or not, was robbed of a top-five win in program history.
Now, Illinois will have to look past Saturday’s anguish and try to maintain the Land of Lincoln trophy for the second-straight year. Although Illinois has teetered to a 7-4 record (4-4 B1G), it still has an outside shot to win the Big Ten West if the following things happen Nov. 25 and 26 – Nebraska beats Iowa, Illinois beats Northwestern and Indiana beats Purdue. That would give Illinois the tiebreaker, given its home loss to the Boilermakers just two short weeks ago.
A win in Evanston on Saturday will give the Illini their best regular season finish since 2007, which was the last time the Orange and Blue reached the Rose Bowl.