Put On Your Bowling Shoes

With Mississippi State passing up Michigan State, the dominoes fell just right for Illini, who scored a bowl berth after serious uncertainty about their fate leading up to Sunday.

It almost had the feel of a basketball "Selection Sunday" for the Illinois Football team on Sunday.

The top four teams were announced first, none of which featured a team from the Big 12, which would have opened up another spot for the Big Ten.

However, when spots 7-10 were announced, in somewhat of a surprise, Mississippi State surpassed Michigan State, despite both teams being on a bye the previous week, and opening a spot for the final Big Ten team to go to a bowl.

This all started when the Big Ten, through some moment of brilliant ignorance, made an agreement involving the Citrus Bowl where if a Big Ten team made it to the Orange Bowl, the conference would forego their bid to the Citrus Bowl.

So when Mississippi State was ranked ahead of Michigan State, they seized the Orange Bowl slot, which meant the Big Ten kept its Citrus Bowl bid and therefore no Big Ten team would be left without a conference-affiliated bowl.

But aside from what was out of Illinois' control, the effort on their end just to get to this point is something else.

Sitting at 3-4 following a loss to Wisconsin in Madison and with matchups against Minnesota, Ohio State, Iowa, and Penn State coming up in consecutive weeks, the outlook was bleak for the Illini when it came to a bowl.

Yet somehow, the team played arguably their best game to date against Minnesota, scoring a 28-24 win over the Gophers, who at the time had only one loss on the season, on a day where Illini great Red Grange was honored.

The next two games were setbacks for Illinois, though. Ohio State defeated the Illini 55-14, which is no surprise with how good the Buckeyes have been this year. Against Iowa, Illinois had opportunities, but Wes Lunt struggled early and the Illini fell behind late, even with Reilly O'Toole in at quarterback.

But the team, especially the seniors, circled the wagons against Penn State. Lunt again got the start, but was quickly replaced by O'Toole. The Illini pulled a stunner over Penn State 16-14, setting up a huge matchup with rival Northwestern in Evanston for a chance to earn a bowl bid.

Northwestern, also 5-6 on the year, was playing for the same thing. Bragging rights over a rival and the all-important bowl berth, but Illinois came into Chicago's north side and hit the Wildcats in the mouth en route to bringing home the Land of Lincoln trophy to get that landmark sixth win.

This was the scene after that game:

As far as those players knew, they had just made a bowl for the first time in three years. The seniors would essentially be going out on top and a team who was facing the criticism of media and fans alike, had proven several people wrong and done what they needed to in order to be bowl-eligible.

But as the rest of the pieces started falling in place nationally, the outlook wasn't as good for the Illini, especially with the Big Ten's inexplicable miscue. Penn State, who under normal circumstances would still be serving their bowl ban even with a 6-6 record (and only 2-6 in the conference), became an advantageous selection because their fan base travels so well and would be a good story now that they are back.

Rutgers and Maryland, both 7-5 on the year, held a better record than Illinois and as the new guys in the conference, were appealing picks, especially for bowls closer to the East Coast.

But Illinois players, fans, coaches, and media alike, were all nervous that Illinois could and would be left out in the dark.

Being left out of a bowl would be devastating for this team. They all believed that sixth win punched their ticket to another game and would earn them another chance to prove themselves on the field this season. Had they been left out, it would have been a crushing blow for a lot of seniors who gave what they had to get to that point, only to fall short due to a technicality that was completely out of their hands.

Fortunately that is not the case anymore. And for the sake of the seniors and all of the members of the team that had to battle to stay alive and battle against criticism and their struggles all year, the bowl bid is a reward for a lot of hard work.

Who knows how they will perform when they get there, but the opportunity to play a thirteenth game this season is something the players and coaches won't take lightly. This is a team that is hungry to prove a lot of people wrong and be successful.

And for the seniors, it's one more chance to put on the orange and blue and end their Illini careers on a positive note.

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