Smile Politely

And it all falls apart…

There comes a point in every Illini fan’s year — usually when the leaves have fully turned, but sometimes not until the first snow — when he catches a glimpse of the glowing white Assembly Hall across from darkened Memorial Stadium and wonders “What’s happening on that side of the street?”

This year it came earlier than ever. It was at the resolution of the seventh play of Illinois’ first drive at Ohio Stadium on Saturday that I first began to think seriously about the start of basketball season.

Illinois had opened the game perfectly. With their first six offensive plays they pounded the ball down the field and ate up four minutes of clock. They were doing exactly what they had to do to win. Coach Zook even showed some guts, going for it on fourth and one. Perfect.

But then it all came to a screeching halt. Some genius decided it was a good idea to let Juice Williams throw the ball down the field. This pass was, of course, intercepted.

That was the end of the game. Ohio State marched down the field and scored. Then scored again. And again and again and again until they put up 30 points on a dark and rainy Columbus afternoon. As it turned out, that was fully 29 more points than they needed.

It is the burden of the every Illinois head football coach to keep fans’ attention as long as possible into the school year. Sooner or later, everyone is going to focus on basketball. But a good little run on the gridiron is a nice way to start a sports year.

Ron Zook reached the high water mark in the 2007 season when he kept us paying attention into 2008. Nearly unprecedented. And with his recruiting skills there was no reason to think he couldn’t work similar magic in the coming years.

But then last year happened.

Still, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Coach had the decency to keep it up until mid-October, just in time to ceremonially hand the baton off at the end of the game. After the Homecoming loss — the Illini’s third of the year, this one to Minnesota — the packed stadium got witness the world’s largest outdoor basketball practice. There were Illini players in shorts putting balls in hoops, and all felt right in central Illinois.

But now this. September. The leaves are still green, for goodness’ sake, and the closest we get to basketball players is glimpses of them walking down 4th Street toward Ubben, or in McColley’s columns.

Everything Illinois did poorly against Missouri they did worse against Ohio State. Illinois had seven first half penalties, including two 15 yard personal fouls in a row. Illinois players fumbled the ball three times and the quarterbacks threw three interceptions. Juice Williams threw the ball to the ground more than to any receiver and even when he did hit a man in the hands, it was invariably dropped.

Despite trailing by a large margin, the team took only two long shots downfield. One was caught out of bounds and the other underthrown enough so that Regis Benn was interfered with. But that was it.

It was a pathetic showing from beginning to end and the thing that made it worse was that it wasn’t an anomaly. And the thing that made it really worse was that it wasn’t October.

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