My, how times have changed.
Prior to Saturday's contest between the Illini and Penn State Nittany Lions, the Illini had won only two games against their Big Ten rival since 2002. They had been outscored 258-144 while being held to fewer than 14 points in five different games.
Overall, Penn State leads the all-time series 17-4 following their overtime win on Saturday. This win moved the Lions to 5-3 on the season, only one win short of bowl eligibility.
The Illini on the other hand suffered a huge blow to their slim hopes of reaching a bowl in 2013, falling to 3-5 on the season with four games remaining. They were also looking for their first win in Big Ten play since 2010, which came against the Indiana Hoosiers.
Illinois heads to Bloomington this coming Saturday to take on the Hoosiers and seek its first Big Ten win in 18 games.
With a 3-5 record and four games remaining, the Fighting Illini would have to win three of their last four games to be eligible for a bowl.
Likely? Not so much.
The Illini head to Indiana before hosting No. 4 Ohio State on Nov. 16. A trip to Purdue is next (which is a very winnable game for the Illini), ending with a Nov. 30 contest against rival Northwestern.
Logic dictates that they won't beat Ohio State.
However, if the gods align right and the Illini play their hearts out, they could realistically beat Indiana, Purdue or Northwestern. However, beating all three is a huge stretch for a team that has not won a Big Ten game in 18 games.
Although the loss to Penn State was a huge blow to their bowl hopes, it was still a good sign to see the Illini put up such a fight against a solid team. Sure, Penn State is no Ohio State or Michigan. But it is still a team much better than the Illini.
Illini fans should be pleased with Saturday's game and have a right to be a bit optimistic.
After going 2-10 in 2012, Champaign was a very sad town during football season in recent times. However, following an upset over Cincinnati and a near upset of No. 24 Washington at Soldier Field earlier in the year, the overtime loss on the road to Penn State was a breath of fresh air for Illini fans.
Perhaps the program is heading in the right direction. Although Illinois will be losing senior quarterback and leader Nathan Scheelhaase, the team already has a replacement lined up in Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt.
The Illini knew that 2013 would be a year of learning on both sides of the ball. First-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit implemented a whole new offensive system, and the defense had many starters to replace.
The home stretch for the Illini will be quite interesting. Any Big Ten win will help them in their recruiting situation, an aspect that head coach Tim Beckman hasn't exactly excelled in.
Buckle up and sit back, Illini fans. It may be a bumpy ride, but you have the right to be cautiously optimistic.
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