Illini rocked Wisconsin last season, but are they good enough to keep rolling in 2020?

Lovie Smith and Illinois open Friday against the No. 14 Badgers in Madison. Is it time to really win yet?

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Wisconsin v Illinois

Tony Adams’ interception set up the winning field goal for Illinois in last season’s upset of Wisconsin.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There are many ways we could illustrate how fruitless a period it has been for Illinois football. We could scrutinize coach Lovie Smith’s 15-34 record. We could lament the longtime attendance woes at Memorial Stadium or the Illini’s sagging recruiting rankings since things fell off under Ron Zook. We could talk about zero bowl victories in nearly a decade.

But let’s try this instead. Let’s go back to 2007, to a moment of pure, unadulterated glory — a 28-21 upset of No. 1 Ohio State that paved the way to Pasadena, Calif., for the Illini. That monumental win? It was the last time Illinois would beat a ranked Big Ten foe for 12 very long, very hard years.

Which brings us, of course, to last season’s last-second, 24-23 win again No. 6 Wisconsin in Champaign. The Illini — in an all-too-familiar hole at 2-4 overall and 0-3 in league play — were 30½-point underdogs, but they clawed back. A late Tony Adams interception set up a James McCourt 39-yard field goal at the gun and an explosion of bottled-up joy. “Jump Around” — the Badgers’ anthem — boomed through stadium speakers. Three more wins in a row, against Purdue, Rutgers and Michigan State, would follow.

And that sums up what Smith and the Illini — who begin a new season Friday against the No. 14 Badgers in Madison — have done for us lately.

The 2019 team lost its final three games to finish 6-7. Smith’s record in league games stands at a still-ignominious 8-28. The Wisconsin win is the only one in Smith’s four seasons at the school against a Big Ten opponent that ended up with an above-.500 league record; the other seven foes, including awful Rutgers three times, went a combined 11-52.

The Badgers are favored by only 20 points this time. Wait, that’s still a whole lot.

“Until we become a consistent winner, this is the position we’ll be in quite a few times,” Smith said. “It’s not all bad to be the underdog.”

The key to the whole operation is not being the underdog so often. To get to that point, the Illini will have to wipe the tire tracks off their jerseys and start winning more Big Ten games than they lose. They haven’t done that since — any guesses? — 2007.

League games — nine of them — are all the Illini will play during the regular season, assuming they, and their opponents, are able to navigate their way through ever-present dangers related to the coronavirus pandemic. Staying safe and on track will be quite an accomplishment no matter what goes in the win and loss columns, but what unfolds on the field, good or bad, will be judged, too.

Is it time to win yet? Because 6-7 isn’t winning.

“Last year, we took a step,” Smith said, “but they don’t [carry] that record over. We start over again.”

And they start over against the bullies of the Big Ten West, who just might be out for blood even though they say they aren’t. There’s evening the score, and then there’s inflicting a blowout beating. The latter is what Badgers teams are accustomed to doing.

What last year’s Illini did best was take the football away. They did it three times against Wisconsin. When it comes to takeaways, three is the number that lives in Smith’s head going into every game.

“That’s in our DNA,” he said.

There are other potential Illini edges one can see. They have an experienced quarterback in Brandon Peters, whereas the Badgers turn to redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. A who’s who of schools offered scholarships to Mertz — Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Oregon — but he’s a first-time starter, in for the injured Jack Coan.

The Illini believe their greatest strength is their offensive line, all five starters from inside the state. Maybe they’ll be able to run the ball a bit like the Badgers — who no longer have 6,000-yard rusher Jonathan Taylor — usually do.

Smith’s team is going to do something right Friday. To promote social-justice awareness, Illini players will wear black Block “I” decals on the sides of their helmets and black fist decals — along with “Black Lives Matter” and other, related messages — on the backs. That, we sure can get behind.

As for the football they play, it’ll take some convincing. We’ll have to see Smith’s team go toe-to-toe with a powerhouse for a second straight year before we can buy the idea that the football fortunes of the Illini have actually changed.

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