Prior to the first game of the season, as I was kibitzing with Travis McDade, your dedicated Smile Politely football photographer, about the upcoming season, the Memorial Stadium crew fired off some fireworks as the team took the field. We joked about how they should really take every opportunity that they could to fire the canons, since the Illinois offense showed little prospect of lighting up the skies.
How wrong we were.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit did little else on Saturday. Scheelhaase dropped bombs downfield, Cubit put a match to the playbook, and the stadium crew lit off every ordnance in the house.
Whereas last year, the Illinois offense had plays of 30 yards or more six times total over the course of 12 games, Illinois has already easily surpassed that total two games into 2013. Josh Ferguson is nearly averaging 30 yards per completion. Saturday’s surprise win against the Cincinnati Bearcats was a world away from the Southern Illinois “a win is a win” variety. Illinois did not merely eke out a victory, but instead overperformed by about 40 points. Whereas the Illini were double-digit underdogs with the bettors, the 28 point margin of victory was something no one predicted.
This is not technically the first win against a Division I-A program in the Tim Beckman era. Last year’s win against Western Michigan counts in that column, but the fact that Cincinnati had already badly beaten Purdue this year only serves to reinforce how wrong I was in predicting that the Illini this year would be unable to be competitive in the Big Ten.
I would be remiss if I did not put this love fest into perspective. Saturday’s game was one where a few small things added up to make enormous differences. The statistical tallies, especially in terms of total yards of offense would indicate a much, much closer game than what transpired. Illinois got the win almost entirely based on the differential in third down conversions: Illinois got 9 of 15, and held the Bearcats to 3 of 13 on third downs. Keeping drives going allowed Illinois to dominate the time of possession by nearly 13 minutes, and allowed Illinois to put a four touchdown beating on a team that had only 66 fewer total yards. If only a few of those third downs come out differently, the entire timbre of the game changes. There’s still plenty of work to be done. The defense gave up a lot of yards. Third down stops show they know how to make stops, at least in the right conditions. They just need to do that on 1st and 2d downs, particularly going into next week’s matchup with a nationally ranked Washington team that had the week off and will not, in any way, be overlooking the Illini.
In a lot of quarters the Scheelhaase narrative has outpaced the facts. The mad love of the press of Scheelhaase is understandable. The guy is a coaches’, reporters’, parents’ dream. Academic All Big Ten, already completed his bachelors and will finish his masters before he graduates, unfailingly polite in interviews, as religious as the day is long. I get it.
But this needs to be kept in check. Over the past years, there were games and games and games over where passes were consistently overthrown. No question Scheelhaase has looked terrific thus far. But there have been a lot of two-game flashes of brilliance in the past. Let’s keep the caution in cautiously optimistic.
Saturday also provided yet another reminder of the brutality of this game, when Munchie Legaux, suffered and leg injury that can only be described as disgusting. With so much focus in football on preventing head injuries you can be excused for forgetting that snapping someone’s leg in half is not a penalty. In fairness to the Illini defenders, the play was entirely clean and there was nothing at all malicious about it. One player was wrapping low, one player was tackling high, things bent in the wrong directions, and next thing you know someone is lying on the ground holding a leg that’s jutting at an anatomically inappropriate angle.
Even that turn of events was only a momentary pause on a Saturday’s excitement that would not be dampened. V’Angelo Bentley is turning into a stellar punt returner. Mason Monheim and Houston Bates are showing strides on the defensive side. Martez Barr is earning some serious stripes at receiver, and his fourth quarter catch was of the bear-on-a-bike circus variety. The run game wasn’t great, but it existed, which counts as improvement.
So much of the credit must go to Cubit’s excellent situation play calling. The pièce de résistance was the third touchdown. On third and two, with a full backfield and every indication of a power run, tight end Evan Wilson releases into the backfield, and no one was within driving distance as he caught a lobbed pass and walked into the end zone. It was a thing of beauty. It’s not too early to show all this. Illinois desperately needed to win this game to change the narrative around the team.
And they did.
Cincinnati, a team that was receiving votes to be ranked in all the polls, goes home with a stinging defeat. Illinois takes their shoes, and is, shockingly, receiving ranking votes as well. There’s no question in my mind that they don’t deserve that. Not yet. There’s a lot of difficult football left to play for the Illini.
But we’ll worry about that later. For now, we’ve got all these fireworks laying around, and we finally have a reason to use them.