CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The playclock still reads 19 seconds on the scoreboard in the north endzone of Memorial Stadium; displayed in big, red numbers. The game clock reads zeros on the boards in the north and south end zone and the final score is still lit up — two days after the the clock hit zero. The final score reads the same on Monday afternoon as it did when the game ended at 2:20 p.m. Saturday.
Illinois 24, Wisconsin 23.
And according to Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, that’s it. The 24-hour rule has been observed and it’s a new week. Illinois (3-4) can build on a one-point win over then-No. 6 Wisconsin with a win at Purdue on Saturday. Beating Wisconsin was huge, Smith recognizes that, but the season doesn’t end with one marquee win.
They’ll highlight the good plays of the game: The game-winning field goal by James McCourt, a huge tackle by Devon Witherspoon, an interception by Tony Adams to set up the field goal, big catches from Daniel Barker, Donny Navarro and Josh Imatorbhebhe and key runs from Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin. The list can go on — there’s plenty to highlight. The coaching staff will over-emphasize the things they can improve on: Converting on third-down opportunities, for instance. It’s a typical game week.
“All the players know what happened,” Smith said. “Good or bad, you move on. It’s about the next play, the next game — always. I just don’t know if you can take something with you. If you’re playing good football, and you’re improving each week, that should continue if you continue to work on improvement and that’s what we’re going to do.”
There are residual effects of the win. Several top recruits were on campus to watch Illinois spoil Wisconsin’s playoff hopes and see a rabid, win-deprived fan base relish the opportunity to storm the field, to celebrate the signature win of Smith’s four-year tenure. Smith was named the Dodd Trophy Coach of the Week and linebacker Jake Hansen was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week and the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week for his two forced fumbles, 11 tackles and a sack.
Those things don’t go away, but they also can’t linger in the face of a renewed hope to win three more games to qualify for a bowl game. Illinois has a chance to win back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since 2014.
“Just realize that you’ve got to go back out there to practice,” running back Reggie Corbin said. “Purdue won’t care, at all. Every team in the Big Ten is good. You can’t sit there and think about that all day.”
The win had the college football world buzzing. Some of Smith’s former players like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs — the menacing former Chicago Bears’ linebacker duo — and ESPN analysts spoke of Illinois football, without debating who could replace Smith, for the first time in what seems like years.
But there’s also a goal in place, one the Illini players set before the season. They want to get to a bowl game for the first time since the 2014 season.
“At the same time, we can’t let a win like this get to our head,” quarterback Brandon Peters said. “We can’t get complacent. I don’t think that’s going to happen. We don’t have the time to do that. We’ve got to win three out of the next five games to get to a bowl game. I think that’s a good possibility for us going forward. We’ve got to stay focused for our end goal and keep building on our preparation each week.”
Things were sweet on Saturday. Smith and athletic director Josh Whitman met on the field among a sea of fans for a massive embrace, the kind that is only let out after taking lumps and lopsided losses for three years before finally dropping a ranked team. But it’s about the next game, the ability to stack, and to prove that one day in October wasn’t an aberration, but rather a start of what Smith hopes is many, many wins. But for now, it’s all eyes on a Purdue team that handled Illinois at Memorial Stadium a year ago.
“The air smells a lot better, the food tastes a lot better, everything is better,” offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “It’s just natural. Those are the rewards that come with winning. The vibe is up, the kids’ confidence is up. We saw them (Monday) morning in meetings and workouts and they’re bouncing around. We’re excited to get going for this weekend.
“This weekend is going to be a tremendous challenge because this team is better than people think. I know their record is a little down compared to what they’ve been in the past, but if you watch film on them, they do a really good job. It’s going to be a tremendous test.”