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Illinois Football: Loss Encapsulates roller coaster season.



Illinois Football
Nov 25, 2023; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats defensive lineman Anto Saka (42) takes down Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback John Paddock (4) during the second half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois football lost The Hat and possibly a chance at the postseason with today’s loss.

Today was a tough loss for Illinois football fans. The Land of Lincoln Trophy is headed for a two-and-a-half-hour drive up I-57 to Evanston, Illinois. The trophy is gone, and the Illini’s bowl hopes are gone. While there is a chance Illinois gets an invite — only if there aren’t enough six-win teams — five wins was not the expectation for the Orange and Blue when the season started. That said, the season finale had to end this way. It only makes sense that a topsy-turvy season ends with a topsy-turvy game.

Illinois football is close game experts.

The Illini became masters at the one-possession finish. Eight of its games were decided by six points or less. Illinois won all of their games by six points or fewer. The season began with their first of four last-second wins against Toledo. Florida Atlantic was close, but the Owls were trying to come back in that game. Then there was the second-half comeback and walk-off against Maryland. Ball State transfer John Paddock sprinkled some magic against Minnesota and Indiana, both walk-offs.

Then there were the losses. The Illini could not finish against Wisconsin or Iowa. This afternoon, the Illini simultaneously tried to win and give the game away to the Wildcats.


Injuries began before the season started. Illinois expected Jordan Anderson and Malachi Hood to contribute, but sustained season-ending injuries. Attrition continued throughout the season. Defensive back Matthew Bailey went down, as did running back Josh McCray. Guards Zy Crisler and Josh Gesky both dealt with nagging injuries. Starting quarterback Luke Altmyer went down against Minnesota.

That theme continued today. The injury bug caught defensive back Xavier Scott and Reggie Love, who returned to the game.

The self-inflicted wounds

Illinois averaged nearly two takeaways per game this season. It was +.5 in turnover margin. In other words, they gave it away more than they took it away. Turnovers and penalties were the Achilles’ Heel and cost Illinois many games this year. This afternoon’s game was the perfect metaphor for that. Miles Scott had a pick-six, but Raymond Niro III recovered a fumble for a touchdown. As a result, that fumble, which occurred on a kick return, was one of two special teams miscues that cost the Illini the game.

Armchair Illini is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering University of Illinois Athletics owned and operated by Alex Kyi. Dante Pryor has been writing about College Football for years on Saturday Blitz and is now the Lead Football Author for Armchair Illini.