Smile Politely

Drop it, drop it; Low, low

Saturday night, Illinois hosted the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in what Smile Politely’s esteemed photographer Travis McDade described as “a lose-lose.” While that insight is certainly not surprising now, since the known result of the game was a brutal 52–24 defeat for the Illini. The game was a lose-lose before the first snap.

Perceptions are difficult things to change. Despite the Vegas oddsmakers’ prediction that this game was essentially a toss-up, and despite all of the ink spilled over the preceding week emphasizing what a strong team Louisiana Tech actually is, college football comes with a set of beliefs that tend to be deep-seated amongst the faithful fans. The comparisons between college football and religion are generally apt, and not just in the southeastern United States. Amongst the fundamental, unquestioned beliefs inherent in the college football universe are these:

1) No team from a major conference such as the Big 10 should ever lose to a team from a non-major conference, such as the Western Athletic Conference (it’s colloquially called “the wack” for a reason, right?), regardless of the relative quality of those teams in any given year.

2) Non-conference losses are only acceptable if they come at the hands of a team whose school name, location, colors, and mascot are all readily known by football fans generally, regardless of scheduling.

3) Said non-conference nationally known team must also be nationally ranked. This itself is only partially acceptable, as every fan worth her officially licensed merch has an early season belief that her team has a non-trivial shot at beating any opponent at home. If you don’t believe me, go pull up the reems of comments from Michigan fans who took time to argue at length that their team would actually compete against Alabama.

These core beliefs are the reason Mr. McDade’s prediction is inherently true. The game was truly a lose-lose before the first snap.

If Illinois loses the game, and they sure did, it’s not just a loss but a “bad loss,” having violated the aforesaid central tenets. This is true regardless of how close the game was or how impressive the opponent on the field actually looked.

If Illinois had won the game, even won it handily, the response in the pews would have been a collective shrug, grounded in an unquestioning faith that Illinois should, of course, win the game by virtue of major conference pedigree.

But, I would be neglectful of my duties if I failed to play the apologist, at least a bit. Was Saturday’s defeat bad? Yes. Yes, it was.

But it is possible to overstate the magnitude of how bad it was. Illinois trailed by only four points at the half, and looked to be getting a handle on Louisiana Tech. The offense looked well prepared early, taking advantage of the coverages with frequent passes on crossing routes that enabled the kind of consistent gains that Illinois needed to win a time of possession battle and keep the quick-strike offense of the Bulldogs off the field. The defense seemed to find footing after the early strikes, and Illinois held Louisiana Tech to three yards of total offense in the second quarter, enabling the Illini to climb partially out of the hole that the early turnovers had put them in.

But then the third quarter began. And the game was over. Louisiana Tech’s quick strike offense made frequent and hasty use of the short fields that Illinois persisted in creating with turnovers aplenty.

It really is not possible to overstate the effect that Illinois’ turnovers, all six of them, had on this game. Louisiana Tech’s total yardage was 403, compared to Illinois’ 324. Illinois actually ran more offensive plays, 78 compared to the Bulldogs 59. The Bulldogs were putting up about 100 offensive snaps a game coming into this one. Louisiana Tech was forced to punt more times than Illinois. And Illinois held the Bulldogs to 3 out of 11 in third down conversions. Statistically, Illinois did a great deal of what it needed to do in order to be in a position to win the game.

But the turnovers made all of this meaningless. The best defense in the nation isn’t going to do much for you when a kickoff hits your player in the back and bounces into the end zone. Literally all the opponent needs to do is fall on the ball and collect six points. And they did.

My recommendation for the next week is to turn off your radio and be diligent about not reading comments on news articles, if you can bear to read the news articles at all. The pessimism amongst the Illini nation following this loss is profound and deep. Please ignore the predictions of a whole spate of losses to come. They are premature. Fumbling the football is, in fact, a correctible problem. While Illinois has shown an ability to hurt themselves through mistakes or just look flat, so have most other Big Ten teams. Iowa lost to Central Michigan on Saturday. There are a whole lot of winnable games left on the schedule. But there’s got to be change, because there’s not a single team left to play, not even Indiana, that Illinois could beat while turning the ball over six times.

Penn State comes to Illinois next Saturday, and Illinois starts the conference schedule unbeaten like every other team (or, winless, if you’re a natural pessimist). There’s a lot of football left to play, and the Big Ten, especially Illinois’ half of it, remains wide open.

Illinois dropped a bad one. There’s still time to pick it up.

More Articles