Well, at least the helmets looked good.
One particular series summed up the overall feel Saturday’s game, yet another blowout loss for Illinois. In the waning seconds of the first half, Illinois had manufactured a nice long drive and was knocking on the door. At the 1 yard line, Nathan Scheelhaase’s pass was intercepted by Penn State linebacker Michael Muti, who then began an improbably 99 yard return that ended just short of the goal line as Miles Osei managed to get a TD saving tackle. V’Angelo Bentley blocked the ensuing field goal attempt by Penn State as time expired.
The drive summed up Illinois’ day in that it was really bad in improbable ways, and the bright spots that kept it from being much worse were few, far between, and ultimately inconsequential.
After the game, I asked Tim Beckman whether there was one area of the game that needed the least amount of improvement, one aspect of the team that was the closest to where he thought they should be. He wouldn’t answer, declining to “point fingers” even when asked for a relative positive. Maybe Beckman didn’t want to point a finger at any particular unit playing better than the rest, because that necessarily means that every other unit is doing worse. But really, he was right. There isn’t any aspect of the Illini’s play over the last two weeks that’s even close to acceptable. That’s not my opinion. That’s the team’s opinion. Players, coaches, everyone. The unanimous assessment was that the Illini just have not played well enough in any aspect of the game over the last two weeks.
Last week there were at least the turnovers to blame, and Illini fans could comfort themselves with the counterfactuals: if only Illinois hadn’t committed so many turnovers, given so many short fields to a fast-scoring offense, the game would have been different.
There really is no such comfort this week. The Illini just underplayed. In yet another game they were statistically in contention in many categories, but miscues, turnovers, penalties continued to come pouring in, often at the worst possible time. Keep in mind that Illinois was just a bounce of a field goal from taking Penn State to overtime last year. Penn State is not nearly as good as they were last year, and yet Illinois continues to play so much worse.
One particularly disturbing development was a raft of penalties, eight of which were called against the Illini. It was clear that someone had told the refs to emphasize hits to the head, and they did. I generally applaud attempts to make football safer, especially in light of the ever increasing body of evidence regarding the links between football and brain injuries. These types of calls are necessarily difficult as there is a subjective intent component that is inherently difficult to apply consistently.
That being said, I remain flummoxed by Earnest Thomas’s ejection from the game for a just-past-the-goal-line hit that was determined to have illegally targeted the head of a Penn State player. It seemed like a marginal penalty call at best. The fact that it resulted in an ejection was totally surprising.
But the new helmets really did look good. The orange Block I really pops against the matte blue background which somehow manages to look simultaneously old school and modern. Maybe I was just ready for any new change, as the old helmets always looked irredeemably ‘90s to me.
Two different ways to look at next week’s game when Illinois travels to Madison to play Wisconsin. Either Illinois has a chance to get a win against a Wisconsin program that, despite defending two consecutive Big Ten championships, looks surprisingly mortal and lost another one. Or, Wisconsin gets a chance to bounce back against a Big Ten opponent that has yet to be even competitive in games that were supposed to be close, as Illinois has not shown that it is in the class of the opponents that have been able to take down the Badgers. Illinois faces pretty much the same situation the following week, playing Michigan in Ann Arbor, before getting a week off. If Illinois drops both the upcoming games, it’s going to be a long, long month of October.
Illinois really needs a win in the next two weeks, as much for their own confidence as that of the fans. Even if Illinois is able to beat a weak-even-by-Indiana-standards team when they come to Champaign for a Homecoming contest (and that isn’t a gimme, given the last two weeks), it will likely be too little too late for too many. A disturbing number of people have a disturbing lack of patience, and the vitriol about the team in general, and Tim Beckman in particular, is already getting out of hand. Granted, message board trolls are not a very good gauge of rational sentiment, and their opinions are certainly no way to run an athletic department. I saw someone suggest that Illinois should have hired Jim Tressel for the coaching job. Seriously. These people are morons.
But Illinois desperately needs a win, and soon, to get the feeling back that the season is not yet over. They’ve got the new hats. Now they just need a new mindset to put in them.