Illinois has played four impressive quarters in the last eight tries and people are talking seriously about a bowl bid. A bowl game is a long, long way off -— and subject to about a dozen “ifs.”
So for now, it’s just good enough to enjoy the emergence of a team many expected to see show up against Missouri: Prone to mistakes, but with enough firepower to overcome them.
The game against Minnesota was truly exciting — and it had just about everything a game could have. Touchdowns (including an interception returned for touchdown, a touchdown with a single second left in the half, and a touchdown pass that Arrelious Benn appeared to simply rip from the defender), field goals both missed and made, sacks by the bucket full, momentum swings, big hits, a big lead that evaporated, bad calls, no-calls, a blocked punt, an on-side kick and 67 total points. Except for overtime, you really can’t ask for much more.
This game even had three Illinois quarterbacks coming away from it rightfully satisfied with their performance: both Juice Williams and Jacob Charest played well under center and Eddie McGee made an extremely important third down reception and run. How often does a coach keep even two quarterbacks satisfied?
This win was not, for true fans, more important than Michigan. A win against Minnesota rarely will be. But for the team, it might be better. Not only was it a confidence builder, it was a struggle. The issue was in doubt right to the final minutes of the fourth quarter, and Illinois did what it had to do to win.
Maybe more importantly, Illinois unveiled a new star. Freshman Terry Hawthorne is not perfect, but he proved that he is more than just a one-play wonder. As Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson and Chris Gamble all showed in college, sometimes the most electrifying man on the field starts plays twenty yards from the ball. Hawthorne has a long way to go (and Illinois has been burned before by players that got off to promising starts), but he has certainly provided a spark. That alone may be enough to get people in the stands.
It is impossible to say why this team is winning when once it was losing; there is no one thing. The offense is clicking better, but it is far from perfect. There are still too many dropped balls and missed blocking assignments. Also, while drive-killing (or inducing) penalties are down, they are not out. And the winning is not simply a case of sorry competition; playing against lousy teams has never been a guarantee of Illini success.
There may be some luck involved. Illinois has been an unlucky team and Juice Williams has been a monumentally unlucky quarterback. (People who don’t believe luck has a lot to do with success or failure need only compare Williams with Jacob Charest. The latter, in playing time that adds up to less than one total game, has thrown six passes that should have been intercepted. Not could have been — should have been. And the only reason they weren’t is luck.) But if luck plays a part, it is in an ensemble piece.
There simply is no one thing. Sometimes the tide just turns. That’s no reason at all, but it’s as good a reason as any.