That'll Be The Day
When the referee overturned the fumble return for a touchdown - you have to take 5 steps with the ball for it to be a catch, apparently - I had a mini meltdown. Why does this ALWAYS happen to us? The refs just changed a win to a loss.
WAIT. What is this? An Illini team screwed over Lemonnier-style that comes out of the locker room angry and looking for revenge? What we all expected to see - Minnesota takes the opening kickoff of the second half, marches down the field, scores and ties the game - became a... three and out? And then we turn that into a touchdown and put the number 31 back up on the scoreboard - the number that the officials stole from us.
And then - then we'll force a fumble on the second play of Minnesota's next drive, take over at the 30, score in ONE PLAY, and put 38-17 on the scoreboard. And THEN, after forcing Minnesota is forced to punt AGAIN, Reggie Corbin goes 77 yards AGAIN, and suddenly it's 45-17 only 11 minutes into the second half.
Had you suggested this scenario to me at halftime, that would have been my response. "21 unanswered after getting screwed over by the refs? That'll be the day."
Well, today was that day. We'll get into what that means in a moment (and whether it really means anything), but that day was today. The typical Illinois burst out of nowhere ("hey guys maybe we're getting better"), something disastrous happens ("the receiver did not have possession of the ball even though he took four steps with it so it's not a fumble and we're taking Illinois' touchdown away"), and then we all sit around after the six point loss talking about the seven points taken off the board. But that didn't happen. A 21-0 third quarter happened, putting the game away.
Perhaps more importantly, an Illini blowout happened. I get why Lovie was playing the backups in the fourth quarter (if a starter gets injured there, we're all angry), but I really wanted to hold Minnesota to 17. They had a long TD pass against the second-string defense and then, with 1:30 left, a long TD pass against our third-string defense (with true freshmen like Ezekiel Holmes playing their first-ever snaps on that drive). If we don't give up those two plays, it's a 55-17 final.
But that's just being nitpicky. 55-31 is still a blowout. 646 total yards is definitely a blowout. And we haven't had a blowout win against a Big Ten opponent since... Purdue 2015 I guess? I need to research that later. No time to look it up now. There's too much to talk about.
A blowout win suggests that you're getting somewhere. You didn't get lucky - you won big. One week ago you produced one of the more embarrassing losses of the decade, the defensive coordinator resigns, and you turn that around and not only win, but win big. THAT is not how you follow the Illini football script. That is taking a different path.
What will it mean? We still don't know. We might see three more blowout losses to finish the season and then look back on this season (with maybe a 4-8 Minnesota team next to us in the standings) and say "we beat four bad teams and lost the rest". As I said after the Purdue loss when everything looked so bleak, we have to wait for the full season to make any evaluations like that.
But for today, a massive surprise. An incredible rushing performance, a much-improved defensive performance, and a blowout win. Get one more this season and we're really getting somewhere.
+ See that photo up at the top? That was the Grange Grove as I was walking into the stadium. What an incredible fanbase, right? I was so excited to take that photo. Those are my PEOPLE. 8-24 the last 32 games? Here we are, showing up again, hoping against hope. We tailgate, we go inside the stadium, and we hope for a day like today.
Just imagine what it will look like when we have a program winning games consistently. That'll be the DAY.
+ Let's make a long list of great individual performances, shall we? It feels like forever since I've been able to make a list like this.
- Reggie Corbin. If he's not Big Ten Offensive Player Of The Week, we storm the Big Ten headquarters. I'm willing to accept co-Offensive Player Of The Week with that Purdue receiver who had like 175 yards and three touchdowns, but that's as far as I'll go. He'd better be on that list. (By the way, Corbin is now 48 yards from 1,000. I'm in Missouri - maybe I should go hand deliver that news to Garrick McGee.)
- Tony Adams. Listen to this stat line: 10 tackles, leading the team. A sack. Three (3!) pass breakups including taking a touchdown away just before halftime. AND, Adams had that forced fumble taken away by the officials because they claimed the Minnesota receiver didn't catch the ball. 3 of our 5 PBU's, 1 of our 3 sacks, 10 of our 79 tackles. Solid day for the sophomore.
- The Offensive Line. 430 rushing yards and only one sack allowed (which, if I recall correctly, was at the very end of the game when AJ Bush was tackled on a designed "pause in the pocket and then take off" play). What a massive improvement for this unit (one senior, three sophomores, and a freshman, I might add).
- AJ Bush. Easily his best game as an Illini (better than any game at Virginia Tech, too). 18-25 for 216 yards passing, 127 yards rushing on 14 carries (9.1 average) with two rushing touchdowns and two passing touchdowns. You know, maybe HE should be the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week.
- Dre Brown. 92 yards rushing including the 72 yard touchdown. A great kickoff return out to the 35 yard line. And even a great catch (+/- 30 yards) that was brought back for a holding penalty. More Dre, please.
- Bobby Roundtree. He continues to inch closer to the lofty expectations everyone has put on him. The stats today were just a half-sack and two QB hurries (plus six tackles), but Minnesota really struggled to run the ball to his side.
- Chase McLaughlin. He's now hit 17 of his 22 field goal attempts on the season (77%) including 4 of 6 from 50+. Maybe they should have pushed that second field goal back a little bit so he could have 5 of 7. That one was "only" 48 yards.
I could go on, but those are the players who stood out to me. I feel like I'm missing several players so maybe I'll revisit this in the middle of the week.
+ I have a lot more to say about this game but it's 1:45 in the morning and I'm finally coming down off my high and probably need to get some sleep. Maybe I'll do a part II to this post. Maybe I'll just open this up in the morning and add a bunch more paragraphs. Perhaps I'll be able to write one of these nearly weekly in the future if we build this thing into a real program.
That'll be the day.