In college, in a 1,056-square-foot house on California Avenue in which we crammed eight guys, my roommates and I started a Madden football league.
I was a terribly boring Madden player. While my roommates preferred to sling the ball all over, I was the guy grinding out first downs and winding clock. Halfback dives, counters, power-O -- that's where I made my living.
I think I preferred the safety of running the ball. Guys can fumble, sure, but turnovers usually happen through the air. I'm not sure what that says about me -- we're not here for a therapy session, to psychoanalyze my Madden preferences as a manifestation of my life events -- but it's how I ran my offense. To each his own, they say.
There's an obvious parallel here, after AJ Bush threw two bad interceptions and the Illini lost big in part because they lost the turnover battle, but that's actually not the direction I'm going here. The point of that only mildly interesting anecdote is that I stuck with what I knew, and what I was comfortable with.
Throwing the ball is a part of Rod Smith's offense, but it's not his calling card. Consider this paragraph from his bio on fightingillini.com: "During Smith's tenure in Tucson, Arizona established a prolific offense, setting several single game and season records. In 2017, while helping the Wildcats to a 7-6 record and appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl, Smith helped lead an offense that averaged 41.3 points (5th nationally), 309.3 rushing yards, 180.2 passing yards and 489.5 total yards (12th nationally) per game. Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate rushed for 1,411 yards (9.2 yards per carry), while completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,591 passing yards with 14 touchdowns."
That's a paragraph about a "prolific offense" that averaged 180.2 passing yards per game. His offense was prolific, but it wasn't because Khalil Tate was airing it out. The offense was potent because Tate was a strong runner, and they played to their strengths.
Everything about Illinois' offense under AJ Bush was geared toward the run. Bush's best asset is his legs. With Mikey Dudek out, the best skill position players are running backs. The offensive line is still a work in progress as a pass-blocking unit, but they can grade road.
So to have a tide-turning interception on third-and-two, after also passing on second-and-two, is hard to stomach. Get the first down. Do what you do well. Stick with what got you there.
At least, that's what I would do.
-I was perhaps late in coming around to the MJ Rivers Era, but I needed that second Bush interception Saturday to finally get on board.
I do like that Rivers seems to be getting better as a runner. Eight rushes for -6 yards isn't representative of his day running the ball, because sacks are counted as negative rushing yards, but he's more athletic than he showed early and he was even able to scramble a few times and picked up decent yardage. And, of course, nobody will forget he was 70 yards downfield blocking for Reggie Corbin on Corbin's 80-yard scamper.
His arm is his ticket, though, and is perhaps also the offense's ticket to a more balanced attack. I know I spent the lead-in preaching about how the Illini should make their bones on the ground, and that's still true -- especially in short-yardage situations -- but they can't be one-dimensional to the extent they are/were under Bush.
If Rivers can pose some semblance of a threat in the read-option game, while possessing an arm capable of making plays downfield, that could unlock some more impressive total yardage numbers down the stretch. It's now incumbent on the coaching staff to best utilize his skillset while also staying true to what has gotten them the wins they've gotten.
-There's nothing to say about this defense that hasn't already been said about the finale of the second season of "The Handmaid's Tale."
-I know the emergence of Trenard Davis as arguably (inarguably?) the offense's best receiver can be viewed as a bad thing, but I actually see it as a positive. On an offense challenged for productive receivers, I appreciate that Davis seems to regularly get open.
It is, of course, and indictment on four-star Ricky Smalling, and four-star Carmoni Green, and senior Sam Mays, and the rest of the receiving corps that a journeyman like Davis is the team's go-to receiver, but we don't have the luxury of being picky. And with Rivers now more capable of getting him the ball, here's to hoping Davis's best days are still yet to come.
-Delano Ware's interception technically never happened (aside: thank goodness college football hasn't totally lost its mind and the targeting call on Syndey Brown was reversed) but it was still good to see him show the awareness to catch the pop-up, turn it up and reverse the field.
-Good bounce-back game for Chase McLaughlin. Things got dicey there for a few weeks, but he's still one of the most talented kickers the school has had in years, and that field goal before the half was a reminder of that.
-I'm a serious Stanley Green critic, but it's hard not to say he had a good game Saturday. The interception was more or less a gift, but the return changed the complexion of the game at the time. He also had 16 tackles to lead the team by a country mile.
-We now enter the stretch of games where the Illini conceivably have a shot at winning any of them. (The word "conceivably" will absolve me from any "my bads" after Iowa wins 34-3 next month.) Maryland opened at -17 on Sunday night, so the oddsmakers understandably don't have much faith in the Illini to go into College Park and make some noise, but Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern are all there for the taking.
This isn't the "spirit win" portion of the schedule, either. The goal should be at least two real wins over the final five games. There have been some lows thus far this year, but a lot of ills can be cured, and wrongs righted, going into next fall looking to improve upon a 5-7 record in 2018.
It won't be easy, but it never is for Illinois football and its fans.
Hail to the Orange.