So I just finished watching the volleyball game. Tried to write a post right after the loss, no words were there, needed to see an Illini win, so I tuned in to #7 Illini Volleyball vs. Michigan St. And it made me realize this football thing might never happen.
OK, "never" is too strong of a word, but it just got me thinking about how some things just stay where they are. Like Wisconsin football and Illinois football. What was Aristotle's theory of gravity? That things just return to their natural place? That rock simply wants to be on the ground when you let go of it. That's how this feels right now. Sir Isaac Newton hasn't taken a break under an apple tree yet, and we all just trust Aristotle's ideas about gravity, so we just return to our natural place in the Big Ten basement.
Illini Volleyball's natural place is in the top-15. It seems like we've been there forever. Looking it up, Illini Volleyball has been in the Sweet 16 in eight of the last ten years with a title game appearance in 2011. Illinois came into this one 17-3 (6-3), Michigan State was 15-7 (3-6), so we basically knew the result before the game started. As expected, 25-17, 25-21. 25-21 Illini.
Why such dominance? Because Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli are really good. We knew that when they picked Illinois (I believe both were top-10 recruits nationally). Why did they pick Illinois? Because we're constantly in the Sweet 16. So the whole thing is basically self-sustaining.
Which is the same as Wisconsin football and Illinois football. What they do endures (and has endured for 25 years), what we don't do endures (and has endured for 25 years), and nothing seems to be changing. Watching Illinois Volleyball vanquish another unranked foe, it just feels like Illini Volleyball will always be ranked and Michigan State Volleyball will never be able to climb to our level.
Or just look at Illini golf. After several fall tournaments the rankings came out this week and Illinois, in this rebuilding year with no seniors, is 9th. I predicted a drop out of the top-25 for the first time in 12 years, but it just hasn't happened. After a 6th place finish at the loaded Fighting Illini Invitational, the young Illini won their last two events and find themselves in the top-10 again. You know, where they belong.
I know this point always leads to the discussion of coaching - "just have to find the right coach" - and of course that's true, but do you think the right coach turns around Rutgers basketball? Do you think Wake Forest football is ever destined for true greatness? Some programs just seem destined to return to their natural place. Illini Golf, now that it's built, might never fade. Illini Football, still unable to be built, might never succeed.
That's how it feels tonight, anyway. Sure, as I type this, Purdue is kicking the crap out of Ohio State, but then Louisville boosters will pay Brohm's buyout to return him to his alma mater and Purdue will fade again. Things just have a way of returning to where they belong.
And I'm accepting that we just belong in the basement. For whatever reason. I've had people tell me this for years (not years - decades) and I've never really believed them. I've always held on to this thing of When Illinois Football Returns To It's Rightful Place At The Top but I think I now see how silly that is. It's never going to really happen. Because when it does happen, someone from one of those top tier programs will just hire the coach away (see: Mackovic, John) and we will drop right back down to our rightful place.
Sorry for spiraling down on you. Seems like a weird time to do it. We lost a game by 29 that we were supposed to lose by 25, and it was that turnover game I've been warning you about (we all knew it was coming), and now that it's out of the way we can focus on these final five games, four of which, in theory at least, are winnable. What I'm discussing in this post really doesn't have much to do with how I see this rebuild. 4-8 is the expectation this year, 5-7 is the goal, and then everyone returns next year and we try to finally leap.
I guess I'm just realizing that whatever climb may happen - with this coach or the next - we're probably always going to return to our natural place. There's something about watching Wisconsin just casually brush you away that makes you realize what they already know: they're always going to be them, and we're always going to be us.
I've always kind of acknowledged this, I guess. I will see Illinois Basketball back to it's natural place at the top if it kills me. With its history and its built-in advantages, it will return. It has to.
Football? I guess gravity will always pull us down.
+ I'm just not sure what the answer is for the defense. I gave all the excuses in the world for the youth in the last 18 games. But the second half of 2018 was supposed to be when the youth is no longer an issue and these players with 18 games of starting experience make huge strides. And that's just not happening.
How has it gotten worse than last year with nearly everyone back? Well, for starters, I think Mike Phair was a huge loss. It's clear that Austin Clark has massively underperformed with this line. You can't get nearly everyone back and get this much worse without pointing at the line coach.
But the problem isn't just on the line. It's the scheme, too. Last year, against a 12-0 Wisconsin team, Illinois held Wisconsin to 303 total yards, 168 on the ground. And that was when we were starting seven true freshmen. We get nearly everyone back (James Crawford and Jaylen Dunlap are the only starters missing from last year's game), everyone gets a year older, we only start one true freshman now (Sydney Brown), we're playing a 4-2 Wisconsin team that struggled to move the ball on BYU, and we give up 545 yards, 357 on the ground? How? Explain to me how that's possible.
The whole point of my "25 games" thing was that youth would rule the day - we'd have very little chance of competing - but after a certain point (now), we'd begin to see serious progress. We're seeing serious decline. And I just don't understand it.
+ Our leading receiver this season is Trenard Davis. He is averaging (ready?) 28.9 receiving yards per game.
That's another thing I don't know how we fix. The plan this season was Meadors (the App State transfer) plus Dudek plus Smalling. Meadors suffered a season-ending injury in the summer, Dudek a season-ending injury in the first game, and Smalling has been ineffective (13 catches for 164 yards through seven games). Sam Mays has filled in admirably, but his numbers have fallen off significantly in Big Ten play. Davis has stepped up big-time and is now our go-to receiver. But there's just no more levers left to pull.
Those sacks that MJ Rivers took? They're mostly because he's not seeing any open receivers. And with Louis Dorsey gone and Dudek and Meadors out, what can you do? I guess we just have to accept that we won't have many open receivers the rest of the season. There's no one, right now, who can get separation and consistently make a play.
+ I'm excited to see what MJ Rivers can do - especially after his blocking performance on Reggie Corbin's touchdown - but I'm sad because I still think that AJ Bush's legs give this offense it's best chance to move the ball. I envisioned Bush consistently gashing the defense for big gains, with Epstein (who limped off injured) and company making this rushing game dangerous. All he needed to do was take care of the ball and make keep-them-honest throws. And those two bad interceptions today were probably the end of that.
Actually the thing that makes me the most sad is... man, I don't even want to say it. The thing that makes me the most sad is that AJ Bush, training camp standout was AJ Bush, training camp standout because he was facing our defense. :(
+ At some point it's going to have to click. I didn't expect it to "click" today per se, but I did expect to cover the spread and we didn't. I expected our defense, better set up to stop Wisconsin's run game than Purdue's passing game, to at least keep Wisconsin to around 200 rushing yards (nope - 357). I expected our offense to be able to take advantage of Wisconsin's banged-up defense, not let them grab five turnovers.
When I wrote that preview in 2017 where I laid out the next six months (Sept-Oct-Nov 2017, Sept-Oct-Nov 2018), October 2018 was, and I quote, "wait, are we sure this is going somewhere? Big Ten football is hard." I wasn't expecting to be "there" at this point. Especially not on a road trip to Wisconsin.
But then November 2018 was this: "it took some time, but THIS is what a Big Ten program looks like." We have the Maryland game and then it's November, which starts with a massive matchup against 0-4 in the Big Ten Minnesota. Will it click? Will we suddenly look like "what a Big Ten program looks like"?
I have serious doubts. Feels like we're settling into our natural place. In the basement.