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Some scares won’t wait for October

If you had a heart attack on Saturday, I’m really sorry about that. After last week’s exhortations for exhorting everyone to come to Memorial Stadium and support the Illini, I feel somewhat responsible for any asthma flare ups, panic attacks, or cardiac events triggered by Illinois’ play against the Broncos of Western Michigan University. I’m not taking responsibility for bee stings though. I told you not to set up your cornhole game so close to that trash barrel.

If you’re just shaking off a Pygmalion-fueled hangover, or if you saw that Illinois was playing a Mid America Conference opponent and sort of tuned out for the week, or even if you blacked out after the nervousness-induced vomiting started somewhere around the beginning of the 4th quarter, let’s recap.

Illinois won on Saturday, but not the way that most people expected. They barely squeaked it out, the final score was 23–20, and the victory was far from secure right up until the final play, but it is a win. Why was the game so bad? Lots of reasons.

Most hand wringing is directly tied to the quality of the opponent. Illinois was supposed to be played close by Arizona State last week. This week was supposed to be different. Illinois was seen as a hot and rising team coming off their win against a ranked opponent, and this game was supposed to be an easy tune-up going into next week’s conference opener. Illinois was favored by two touchdowns. As it turned out, they were down at halftime, and the game was tied with just a bit over eight minutes left to play. Even then, Illinois made a field goal and WMU had the ball to the final possession. In other words, Illinois was one big play from a loss.

How did it come to that? The Illini’s offensive production in the first half can only charitably be described as anemic, and for most of the second half “sputtering” would be a good description. Throughout the first half, Western Michigan was able to summon up six to eight yards at will on short passes that the secondary just could not stop. Add in some costly penalties at inopportune times, and you put the Illini in a 13 to 10 halftime hole. Solving these problems to varying degrees allowed Illinois to pull ahead by the end.

The short answer is that there often didn’t look to be much fight in the Fighting Illini. They just looked kind of flat.

Despite the troubling performance, there are some bright spots.

First off, lest we lose perspective, it was a win. Illinois has now started the season with four consecutive wins, with nary a tally in the L column. The last time they did that, Truman was in the White House, and the University of Illinois had yet to celebrate 100 years in existence.

Also, devil his due, Western Michigan played a very good game. This was no cupcake opponent, and they brought in a very talented quarterback who teamed up with an extremely talented receiver, and they were just clicking.

In terms of the nitty-gritty, there were some bright spots as well. A number of performers stepped up and bailed the team out while others were struggling. The running back committee showed its true depth, as Troy Pollard had an outstanding game with some huge plays in the clutch, and true freshman Donovonn Young broke out a 100-yard game for the first time in his budding career. Perhaps most exciting was the way that Scheelhaase and Pollard worked in tandem in the second half as the play-calling shifted to rely more heavily on the option.

I think any negativity directed at Jason Ford is overblown from this game. True, his overall numbers were not what one would wish to see from the number one back, but in my vantage it did not seem to be his fault. He was not dancing in the backfield and getting tripped up as in some prior games, and was doing a good job of focusing on his strong suit, to-wit bare-knuckled north-south runs. You may disagree, but to me it just appeared to be raw luck ― the holes weren’t there for Ford in the same way that they opened up for Pollard. That’s the way it goes for any particular player: some days are diamonds, some days are rocks.

Perhaps most importantly, Illinois pulled out a close game despite poor play. For anyone who was absolutely maddened by the team last year, (and the year before that…) you know this has been the missing link for the Orange and Blue. In games against Minnesota and Fresno State, Illinois just seemed unable to buckle down and finish at the end. Not this time: Illinois’ defense held Western Michigan scoreless from the 8:00 mark of the 4th quarter to the final bell. There’s always going to be tough games ― an ability to close them out one way or another is something this team will need greatly to improve over last year. It would have been easy to fold and lose this game, especially with the constant reminder from all corners that Western Michigan beat Illinois in 2008.

One other thing to note as a positive: It was tough to tell from the press box, and it may have been directed at some of the first Broncos to run out on the field, but I believe that several students booed the Reagan Centennial Coin Toss, a goofball stunt put together by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth, and noted football love, of Reagan. I put this in the positives sections, because I hope this stunt was booed. College football has enough irrational division in it; we don’t need to add celebrations of recently passed presidents into the mix. If they want a presidential coin toss, they should use the Martin Van Buren presidential gold coin. Those are sideburns we can all believe in.

Next up. Homecoming. Northwestern. The Big Ten Opener. The possibility of being 5–0. The purple cats have got this quarterback named Dan Persa who, if you believe the hype, will feed the entire stadium with just two leftover fish tacos and some Wonder Bread, with leftovers to boot. This despite the fact that he hasn’t played a snap all year. Did I mention that Northwestern lost to Army?

Tune in later in the week for the Homecoming preview, and impress your visiting family and friends with your depth of knowledge, picked up right here on Smile Politely.

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