When the Fighting Illini end their season Saturday at home against Big Ten rival Northwestern, it will mark the third straight year and fifth of the last six years that they will not play a bowl game.
Based on what happened last week at Ohio State, there's no realistic reason to hope for anything besides respectability. Even that was far out of reach in Columbus as at one point in the third quarter of a 52-14 loss, Illinois had one first down and the Buckeyes had 24.
That was a perfect storm of injuries, inexperience and ineptitude. The Illini were playing third and fourth-string quarterbacks with Jeff George, Jr. and Cam Thomas sidelined by injuries against a top 10 team locked and loaded to administer a whipping in its last home game. Toss in heavy rain and there was no way this team was going to make any headway.
"You want to see your team keep fighting," said second-year coach Lovie Smith, who took his first serious flak on social media during last week's blowout. "You like to see big steps, but we've taken small steps throughout. It all comes out to this game. There's one more, no tomorrow."
That game comes against a team which has surged, winning six in a row to up its record to 8-3 and put itself in position to earn a good bowl bid. The Wildcats have hung their hats on senior running back Justin Jackson and a tough defense.
Jackson has rushed for 1,010 yards and eight touchdowns, including 166 last week in Northwestern's 39-0 rout of Minnesota, and is also the team's third-leading receiver with 40 catches. The defense has allowed just 16.5 points per game during the team's winning streak.
The only shot Illinois appears to have in this one is to figure out a way to score first, build some confidence and put actual game pressure on the Wildcats. Strange things can happen in rivalry games, so perhaps a few of them will occur here and provide the Illini with a nice ending to another rough season.
"I think athletes know exactly what it means when this week comes around," Smith said. "Northwestern week is here and we can't wait to play."