By Zain Bando - IlliniGuys Student Correspondent
October 28, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Bloomington Pantagraph)
For Illinois fans in my age-range (mid-20s), winning football has been hard to come by. When I was in school, the Illini only reached one bowl game in my four years of undergrad, ultimately finishing 6-7 in a 2019 Red Box bowl loss to California Berkeley after starting the season 2-4.
Fast-forward three years, and Illinois looks vastly different. Bret Bielema is in his second season at the helm and his Illini squad is off to its best start in over a decade, which is saying a lot given the recent struggles of the program, including coaching carousels, recruiting, on-field consistency, and much more.
But as October turns to November and the heart of autumn is taking shape, Illinois, who has the nation’s No. 1 defense and leading rusher in Chase Brown, sits at 6-1 (3-1 B1G) and are on the doorstep of doing the unthinkable – winning a Big Ten division title. The Illini travel to Lincoln, Neb. for an important road tilt Saturday afternoon, broadcast nationally on ABC in front of a sold-out Memorial Stadium (thanks, Cornhuskers). With a win, Illinois will start the regular season 7-1 with only four regular season games remaining, while also putting pressure on the Purdue Boilermakers, who are idle Saturday and draw Illinois Nov. 12 in what could be a western division title game for all the marbles.
The last time the Orange and Blue were in a similar situation was 21 years ago. That’s right, 2001 feels like so long ago. It was the last time Illinois won a Big Ten regular season title in football, let alone give any fans something to cheer about all year long. During that year, the Illini also began the season 7-1.
But how did they get there?
Led by Kurt Kittner, Brandon Lloyd, Greg Lewis, and David Diehl, the Illini cruised to a 3-0 start that included victories against Cal Berkeley, Northern Illinois, and No. 25 Louisville. But what made the 2001 team standout amongst the rest was its Week 8 thumping against long-time conference rival Purdue, who was ranked No. 20 at the time.
The game began as an evenly matched affair, but ultimately, it was the Illini defense and 299 passing yards from Kittner that got the job done Nov. 3, 2001, as Illinois prevailed in a 38-13 win.
Highlights of the game can be viewed here, courtesy of Big Ten Network.
Illinois finished the season 10-2, losing 47-34 to the LSU Tigers in the 2001 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, La.
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