Standing in the center of the north end zone student section, unencumbered by a crowd, were a dozen shirtless males with orange and blue letters on their chests. Together they spelled out, in below freezing air, “Why are we here?”
“To get on television” sprang immediately to mind. But the real answer turned out to be “To see the weirdest game in Memorial Stadium history.” Among the things this shivering interrogatory saw:
This total score: 105 points. Eighty-nine was the previous Memorial Stadium high, and it took overtime (and Indiana as an opponent) to get there in 1996. The game Saturday beat that mark with nearly nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.
This many touchdowns: 14. That’s fourteen. American.
This statistic: midway through the fourth quarter the Illini had 45 points despite quarterback Juice Williams completing only five passes. That completed-pass-to-point ratio might never happen again in college football.
This decision: Fresno State Coach Pat Hill’s choice to not go into overtime. After an incredible drive and, with two seconds left, a heart-stoppingly close touchdown play, FSU went for the two point conversion for the win.
This play: To all the world it looked immediately as if Pat Hill’s decision was a bad one. Two seconds after the snap of the ball to FSU quarterback Ryan Colburn, Illinois’ Russell Ellington had his arms around the quarterback. But somehow Colburn, as he was falling to the ground, managed to toss the ball in the air toward the goal. Defensive back Tavon Wilson got to it and batted the ball away from the receiver. But instead of hitting the ground, it landed in the taped hands of 350 pound FSU offensive lineman Devan Cunningham who managed not only to catch it, but maintain possession for the two yards it took to get into the end zone.
It was a crazy, almost unbelievable finish to an already strange game. And the frozen silence of the loose coalition of fans (known in other, fuller stadiums as a crowd) gave Memorial an appropriately eerie feel.
At the end of the game it was the conventional wisdom amongst fans, reporters, players and the coaching staff that this game was somehow representative of the whole season. But that’s the opposite of the truth. This game was an anomaly, and Illinois didn’t deserve to lose; that cannot be said of most games this season.
Which gets us back to the group of guys shivering in the north stands. At some point, the ones with letters on their chests realized that without proper spacing, their sentence ran together. So they recruited “spaces,” shirtless guys without letters to stand between words. At one point when the lettered crowd had decided to warm up a bit by putting their clothes on, one of these blanks remained standing by himself. In an instant he’d gone from being an integral part of a coordinated effort to just some guy standing in 30 degree weather not wearing a shirt.
This, to me, is a much better representation of this season than the Fresno State game. This group of letters and blanks, for all the preparation it took beforehand, seemed haphazard and ill-conceived in execution. And even when it did come together, it was hard to discern the point. Then every once in a while you’d look at it, squint and think — what the hell is happening now, and how many drinks has that man had?