CHAMPAIGN — Illinois football coach Lovie Smith didn’t fall back on traditional coach speak during Monday’s press conference.
Instead, the fourth-year coach of the Fighting Illini delivered a simple message.
“This is the biggest game that we’ve had since I’ve been here,’’ said Smith of Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. contest against the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing, Mich. “That’s how we are looking at it. I told the team that after the game and I told the team that today. That will continue to be our message all week.’’
Why is this game so big to Smith and his team?
After three straight Big Ten wins over Wisconsin, Purdue and Rutgers, Illinois (5-4) finds itself just one victory away from being bowl-eligible. The Fighting Illini have not played in a bowl game since the Heart of Dallas Bowl against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs on Dec. 26, 2014.
“That’s how you reward good play and a job well done — by getting to a bowl game,’’ Smith said. “We have an opportunity to do something in November that we haven’t had in a long period of time. That’s all our seniors have been asking for — to have a chance to finish the right way.
“I’m betting on them.’’
The Fighting Illini actually don’t need a win over the Spartans to become a bowl eligible, they just need one more win in the final three games. After Michigan State this Saturday, Illinois still has games left with Iowa in Iowa City on Nov. 23 and Northwestern at home on Nov. 30.
And while it’s a long shot, Illinois could still win the Big Ten West Division and playing in conference championship game on Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.
“To be playing football that matters in November, that’s what we are really most excited about,’’ Smith said. “We have an opportunity to do something we haven’t done in a long period of time.’’
Smith admitted that playing in a bowl game has been one of the goals of his program.
“We don’t talk about that an awful lot until you get to that game,’’ he said. “If you win, you are in.
“This is like a playoff game for us, and we are looking at it that way.’’
If Illinois is going to secure that important sixth win this week, the Illini are going to have to beat a Spartan squad that is 4-4 on the season and Michigan State has lost three straight since a 40-31 win over the Indiana Hoosiers on Sept. 28.
“Michigan State is fighting just like we are,’’ Smith said. “Good football teams have to be able to go on the road and play well. I think we are built for that.’’
This season, Illinois is 2-1 in games away from Memorial Stadium with wins at Connecticut and Purdue sandwiched around a loss at Minnesota.
Harding earns league honor
Illinois linebacker Dele Harding was named the Big Ten Conference defensive player of the week on Monday.
Harding had 12 tackles and 2.0 tackles for a loss in the 38-10 win over Rutgers on Saturday. Additionally, he had a hand in both defensive touchdowns for the Illini, as he returned an interception 54 yards for one score and he forced a fumble that Nate Hobbs returned 36 yards for another score.
It is the first defensive player of the week honor for Harding, who leads the Big Ten with 11.7 tackles per game.
“That’s an accolade for defensive success of our team. I can’t just take it alone,’’ he said.