Illinois Football took the field Saturday and fulfilled expectations. More or less.
What they are is a young football team that needs a lot of work overall. Illinois went into their season opener expected to win but not impress. That they did. They exceeded expectations in some areas, underperformed already rock-bottom expectations in other areas, and ultimately won a game they were expected to win. I like to end on a positive, so let’s start with the underwhelming.
They are a defense, and particularly a secondary, that is prone to giving up huge plays at inopportune times. Despite a very shaky start by the entire team, the Illini trailing for much of the first half, things were largely under control. The defense gave up some very large gains in the fourth quarter and made the game a scare. Only a last minute goal line stand prevented a tying opportunity touchdown. Not at all where the team wanted to be.
Is this fixable? The coaches claim that it is. There is a lot of youth on the team, and it is quite possible that Illinois has the athleticism to play with tougher teams. Maybe, as Beckman and company claim, the young guys just need some experience on bigger stages. Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks said that what he saw from the field was some missed reads but mostly players trying to do too much — rushing to the ball instead of sitting on their assignment. These are classic young player mistakes. Don’t forget: a lot of these players are playing in Memorial Stadium for the first time. Their last game was in high school, in front of aluminum bleachers and PTA volunteers hawking Sno-Cones. It’s understandable that they would get a little over excited.
Still, the gap between what was on the field against the Salukis and what will be needed to contain next week’s opponent (Cincinnati, who put a 35 point beating on Purdue) is a vast chasm indeed. It wasn’t just the defensive secondary, thought that was the main issue: the offensive line and the running game made for a terrible twosome all day. Bridging these gaps in the course of a week would be a stunning feat.
Enough of the negative. Here’s where they are what we thought they were, only better.
They are an offense that played better than anticipated. Nathan Scheelhaase had a personal-record day at QB, throwing for 416 yards.
Considering that’s nearly a third of his total yardage for all of last year, there is a lot to like there. Sure, you can point to the quality of the opponent’s defense, but we played some schedule-filler teams last year, too. And the defense got stops when it really mattered, forcing a field goal on a turnover-shortened field and, most importantly, avoiding a potentially overtime-forcing TD late. Making plays in the clutch was not something that occurred with any regularity in aught-twelve.
So, going forward, what should we think they are so we can say they will have been what we thought they were? (Really, any opportunity to use the future perfect tense must be seized, regardless of ther awkwardness of the resulting sentence).
In the postgame, Head Coach Tim Beckman was visibly stunned when I told him that Cincinnati (next week’s opponent for the Illini) had beaten Purdue 42-7. While favored to win, the Bearcats weren’t expected to win by that much. Whether Purdue (under a new head coach and significantly revamped) is worse than expected, Cincinnati (also under a new head coach and significantly revamped) is better than expected, or both, remains to be seen. Still, not what Illinois wants to hear.
As an aside, if you don’t recognize the source for the title to this piece, do yourself a favor. Watch this clip. We’ll wait for you. It’s worth it. You should stick around the YouTube archives if you’re hoping for some interesting press conference clips, because Illinois didn’t provide them: what we got was 100% playbook presser palaver. Beckman said all the cliche things about “a win is a win” and “I’m optimistic about this team” and the need to improve week over week. What was on the field says what it says.
But all of the players and all of the coaches were candid that they are what we thought they were, not what they thought they could be. Everyone recognized that they need to make significant improvement to be competitive with major conference opponents.
Lastly, Saturday was “Social Media Day.” Can we be done with the masturbatory hashtag promotions now? Encouraging fans to “Tweet Your Seat” to enter a contest to win a t-shirt that, itself, is just an advertisement for the #Illini Twitter feed? I like to think my alma mater is slightly above a pop-up ad for mortgage refi. Please act accordingly. I know I sound like Drunk Uncle, but I’m looking forward to the day that Twitter goes public and suddenly everyone realizes that, like Groupon and discount burritos, dickpics and snark isn’t a business model, and the whole thing can implode. Yes, I’m actively rooting for the Fail Whale.
End of rant. See you next Saturday. Pass the Scotch.