Smile Politely

Illini football team goes off; crushes lowly Div. I-AA team

A casual fan glancing across a list of stats leaders from Saturday’s matchup between Illinois and Charleston Southern would almost certainly think that Illinois lost, or at least was challenged seriously in the game.

Mason Monheim, Dami Ayoola, Justin Hardee, and Fritz Rock. “Damn, that Fritz Rock guy had an awesome game. And what a great name. Fritz Rock. I wish we had someone that played for us named Fritz Rock,” even a semi-serious Illini fan might say.

Wish granted.

Illinois does have a Fritz Rock. Same with Mason Monheim (also an awesome name), Hardee (who should go by the nickname “the Frisco Thickburger” — you’re welcome, no royalties necessary), and Ayoola.

But you’ve never heard of these player before, because they are young, far down the depth chart, and see playing time in the none-to-none range.

Saturday was different.

From the opening moments it was quite clear that, as forecasted, Charleston Southern was badly, badly outmatched. Sure, Illinois struggled mightily against Arizona State, and (according to head coach Tim Beckman) there was “a lot of pride that was hurt.” In what many will see as a rebound, Illinois dominated Charleston Southern, ultimately winning 44–0.

Illinois did not go the typical route, namely playing the A-teams on offense and defense for a few scores and, once the game is safely in hand, subbing in replacements. To a large extent, it was the replacements from the get-go.

For the second game in a row, Nathan Scheelhaase did not play a single snap. Lots of other players sat out with injuries as well. When Beckman was asked after the win to evaluate his team going into next week, his response was, “Not healthy.” It remains to be seen how concerned Illinois fans should be about this. Some of the resting was likely Beckman and staff being extra cautious and using this week’s game as a bye week for anyone who had even a marginal injury, or was just “banged up,” in the football parlance of our times.

Rest assured that talk in the next week is going to focus on Reilly O’Toole, the backup quarterback who threw for a staggering 333 yards and five touchdowns, breaking the Illinois record for pass completion percentage in a single game. Mr. O’Toole, indeed, had a very fine performance, but don’t get too excited (or, if you’re Nathan Scheelhaase, too nervous).

Charleston Southern’s coverage was routinely two steps behind Illinois’ receivers. Ball thrown to the wrong shoulder? Behind the receiver? Just kind of generally lobbed out to the middle of the field? It was a catch today, regardless of the receiver targeted. And O’Toole certainly spread the love around. Please do not complain when O’Toole fails to put up a .838 completion percentage ever again. That said, he played very, very well.

But this was not just a game that Illinois should have won easily. This was a game that never should have been played.

In the preview for this game, I explained why scheduling games like this isn’t just a waste of the fans’ time. It’s immoral. Because of the incredibly violent nature of the game of football, a game where physically subduing one’s opponent is not just allowed but indeed required, scheduling games with badly mismatched and overwhelmed opponents is morally wrong. The risk of a seriously debilitating injury in college football is already high. Big Ten teams playing against FCS/ Division I-AA schools, and especially against schools traditionally in the bottom of that already-lower-tier like Charleston Southern, makes such a risk unacceptably, unconscionably high. “We’re not playing basketball. We’re not playing baseball,” Beckman said, postgame. He was referring to the importance of each win in football as contrasted to sports with longer schedules, but the observation is equally relevant here. If Illinois’ basketball team blows out Quincy 73–45 (2011), the chances that someone is going to incur a serious injury from that are still relatively small. Not so in football.

Four times Charleston Southern players had to be assisted off the field. Four. See that Charleston Southern player on the cart? His school got $400,000 for him to play in this game, and if he limps for the rest of his life he won’t get a cent of disability. Schools owe it to these players to do everything they can to make these games as safe as possible, and that starts with scheduling opponents that are evenly matched. Instead, they chase bowl appearances by tallying token wins.

Let me be really clear here. I don’t blame Illinois’ current athletic director, Mike Thomas for this game: the matchup with Charleston Southern was scheduled long, long before Mr. Thomas came to Illinois. I also lay no fault at the feet of Tim Beckman and his staff. Not only were they not involved in the scheduling, their gameplan and execution were both appropriate and sportsmanlike. Beckman did the right thing, for his own players and for sportsmanship generally, in not playing anyone who would benefit from an extra week’s rest. Illinois still had plenty of talent to get the win without even making it close. He gave the younger players, the Fritz Rocks of the world, a chance at experience and the highlight reel, and they helped even the imbalance some.

But more should be done.

Since Beckman’s arrival in Champaign, the team meeting rooms are covered with newly installed signs espousing sportsmanship and general decency. Things as small as the importance of saying please and thank you, sir and ma’am. Things I strongly believe in. It’s time to extend that same attitude wider. Now is the time to take a stand for sportsmanship through scheduling with integrity. Illinois, with a new head football coach and a newish athletic director is in a perfect position to set a new course. If you think Mike Thomas should not schedule football games against FCS teams, let him know. 

Here’s his e-mail.

Copy Beckman on it as well.

Let them know that you believe in honor, integrity, and sportsmanship, and that you believe scheduling games against lower-tier teams is not consistent with those values. One of Beckman’s favorite sayings is this: the image of one projects the image of all. Doesn’t that apply to games the same as players?

There’s still time. There’s a game on next year’s non-conference schedule, September 21st, that’s still not booked. Or maybe just let them know that you won’t buy tickets for these games anymore. When it comes to fan opinions, I don’t know if Illinois reads every e-mail. I do know that they count every dollar.

All Photos: Chris Willis

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