Barely two minutes into the game and deep in their own territory, Northwestern’s first punt went northwest. A gain of only twelve yards, the shank set the Illini up in very good field position. It was just the break Illinois needed to get off to a good start. And four plays later, the Illini even looked set to capitalize. Sitting at the four yard line, they looked every bit like a team destined for a Florida bowl game. But then.
There has been a lot of “but then” this year. But then a personal foul. But then a fumble. But then a dropped pass. But then blown coverage. But then an awful throw.
In this case, the “but then” was not one thing but rather three things in a row, including a missed field goal (below) that teams with a better kicking game refer to as a “chip shot.”
It was, in so many ways, typical of the Zook era at Illinois. A string of successful offensive plays — featuring here Jacob Charest, Jason Ford, Jarred Fayson, Jack Ramsey, Arrelious Benn — followed by complete failure. A lot of yards and nothing to show for it. And it was exactly how the rest of the half would go. Despite 212 total yards of offense, the Illini had only three points at halftime. Three.
The only good news was that through twenty-nine minutes of first half play, Northwestern had no points at all.
But then the Wildcat offense started finishing drives. Starting with their last drive of the first half, three out of four Northwestern possessions yielded touchdowns. Suddenly, it was the fourth quarter and the scoreboard read Northwestern 21, Illinois 3.
(I skip the third quarter because it was almost like it didn’t exist. Not only did Coach Zook substitute Eddie McGee for Jacob Charest, but he also sat down running back Mikel Leshoure, a man who had twelve first half carries for 77 yards. So third quarter offense was pretty much non-existent.)
In the fourth quarter, the Charest-led offense made a game effort, scoring two touchdowns. But the lead proved insurmountable and the Wildcats, once again, beat Illinois.
So here’s the takeaway from the past three weeks of football:
- First, Coach Zook is here to stay. There may be some changes on the coaching staff, but not at the top. That’s just the way it is.
- Second, Jacob Charest is a good quarterback. He’s not perfect — some of his passes sailed on Saturday and he missed a few really good opportunities. But he generally throws the ball well, makes mostly good decisions, and even knows how to scramble a bit. With all of the other offensive weapons, there is nothing wrong with an unexciting quarterback. And, if nothing else, he has shown that a simple thing like a nicely thrown ball can spark the offense.
- Third, the running back situation has sorted itself out. We have two. Both sophomores, Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure, are punishing runners of the sort the Illini need. And Leshoure, in particular, has demonstrated a surprising burst of speed in the open field.
A lot more is still up in the air. There is no bowl carrot in front of the donkey, so it is difficult to say which team will show up in Cincinnati. But with a few notable exceptions, most everyone still has a lot to play for. They’re either going to be trying to impress scouts or secure a starting position for next year. That might not be enough to win a game, but it’s enough to make it exciting.
One thing is for sure, this team has the talent to beat undefeated Cincinnati. But then, this team had the talent to beat Northwestern.