CHAMPAIGN — As Saturday night was about to expire into Sunday morning, Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe sat in the foyer of the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center surrounded by reporters to begin is post-game interview.
Illinois had just lost 42-38 to Nebraska not but an hour before in a game that it led by 14 points in the third quarter and led for all but the final eight minutes of the game. It was the second loss for Illinois in as many weeks, and both losses came by a total of seven points.
"Why couldn't the passing game get going?" One reporter asked Imatorbhebhe, who poses the ability to speak articulately about any topic and invites others into his own thoughts. This question, though, was too early to answer without dissecting film after the Illini threw for just 78 yards.
Later, Imatorbhebhe was asked if this team needed big changes, or if they were on the cusp of turning things around. That one was an easy answer for the graduate transfer wide receiver who came to Champaign from USC.
“I feel like we’re close and ready for a breakthrough, I really do," he said. "The running game was clicking (Saturday), just get the passing game along and get it more consistent and get everyone on the same page. We’ll be rolling."
The first four games of this season have been a near-mirror to last season. Illinois opened the year 2-0 before dropping the final nonconference game and the Big Ten Conference opener at home in a night game. The scores, though, have been a touch different.
Last year, Illinois needed a late interception from former linebacker DelShawn Phillips in the end zone to beat Kent State in the season opener, then beat FCS opponent Western Illinois by 20 in Week 2. Those wins came before losing on a late touchdown to South Florida in Chicago in Week 3. Then came Penn State in a Friday night conference opener, where the Illini led at one point in the third quarter before a 42-point avalanche from Penn State buried them.
Illinois crushed Akron, 42-3, in this year's season opener and skimmed by UConn on the road in Week 2. That was before Eastern Michigan came to Champaign and beat Illinois behind a field goal as time expired. Then there was Saturday's loss to Nebraska, a game that Illinois looked in control of early on before the offense stalled out and the defense exhausted enough to allow Huskers' quarterback Adrian Martinez to take over.
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Two wins followed by two losses followed by a bye week — two years in a row.
Last year, Illinois came out of the bye week with a convincing win against Big Ten basement-dwelling Rutgers. On Oct. 5, Illinois travels to Minnesota to try to get back on track.
According to junior offensive lineman Alex Palczewski, that's entirely within the realm of possibilities. So, what's different now than a year ago?
“Knowing how good we are," Palczewski said. "You saw out there. Our defense forced four turnovers and our offense was unreal at times. We have to keep on having every single play that we run that we have to make sure we’re going to score every single time."
Lovie Smith maintains that his iteration of his defense, in his fourth year as the Illinois head coach, is better than he's had in the past. They forced four Nebraska turnovers, which ultimately gave Illinois the ball late in the fourth quarter and a chance to march down the field and win the game. Despite allowing 674 yards to Nebraska — a total that was revised from 690 on Monday after film review — there was still a path to a victory.
“I think we have a chance now to win," Smith said. "In year’s past, I don’t think we had a chance. We have a chance now. Absolutely we do. We’re a better football team. (Saturday) it didn’t turn out that way. There were a lot of factors that led to that. Maybe it’s just a really good offensive team, but we are definitely a better defensive football team than we’ve been."
Illinois has a week off before traveling to Minnesota, perhaps a week needed to soak in defeat, running back Reggie Corbin said. But he, like his teammates, maintain things are different this year. The blowout losses, for the time being, are gone. The latest hill to get over is to figure out how to win.
“It’s not even close to the last few years," Corbin said. "I think we’ll be perfectly fine, man. We can fix it. We’re in dog fights. The past few years, we were losing by 30. This isn’t comparable."