There are very few people I dislike.
It's just not my style. I don't hold grudges well. I try to treat others the way they treat me. I'm generally pretty agreeable.
I dislike PJ Fleck.
The reasons are varied. I'm sure part of it is just plain envy. Fleck has been a thorn in the Illini's side for a few years now, first at Western Michigan and now at Minnesota. Even though he fell short of a bowl game last year, winning five games in his first year while Illinois was losing its final 10 games bred jealousy.
More than that, he's eminently dislikable. He's one of those guys that you probably love him if he's on your side, but outside of the state of Minnesota he's almost certainly universally disliked. Elite. Row the Boat. Ski-U-Mah. (I guess that's not an original Fleckism, but he's trying to make it a thing, so I hate it anyway.)
We're no strangers to the rah-rah coach guy. The first suggested search on Google when you type in the name "Tim Beckman" is "Tim Beckman Oskee." Replace "Row the Boat" with "Oskee," replace all that other stuff with ramblings about lasagna and we've seen this play before. They're used car salesmen.
So I thoroughly enjoyed Saturday. Like, thoroughly enjoyed it. Losing to a PJ Fleck-led squad is something I never want to experience again, and watching Reggie Corbin and AJ Bush and Dre Brown and (finally) Ricky Smalling gash the Minnesota defense, as Fleck looked on in disappointment, was delightful. I want to inject that feeling straight into my veins.
Let's relive it:
-It feels like the offense is starting to find a rhythm. (You'd hope so, after scoring 55 points.)
They have, of course, moved the ball on the ground for most of this season. But without the air component, it's an offense that's limited.
With the ground game still rolling, Bush and offensive coordinator Rod Smith were able to use that momentum to open up the passing game as well. And as was said in this space last week, Bush looks like a different guy throwing the ball recently. It's a shame his college career is ending in three games. (It's three, right? We're not gonna talk about how it still could mathematically be four, yeah?) He's rounding into form nicely.
With the run setting up the pass, Illinois is suddenly an offense that can beat teams in different ways. And that's exciting.
-The Dominic Stampley breakout in garbage time of the Maryland game appears to have been the light turning on. He didn't break any Saturday, but he was noticeably involved, more so than at any point except maybe that second half of the Maryland game. He also threw a couple of nice blocks on long touchdowns.
He finished with eight catches for 65 yards. How huge, especially with the news of another wide receiver decommit, to have him becoming a bigger part of the offense.
-Fleck's tears had barely dried before the idea of Rod Smith leaving was floated on the interwebs by doomsday preppers. It's what we do, after all -- we're not allowed to have nice things. Oh, he's good? He'll be gone soon. Hope you like this guy we found in the Sun Belt.
I hope he likes it in Champaign, and Lovie uses some of the Donnie Abraham/Hardy Nickerson money to give him a raise, and he's committed to the cause. I hope for once something gold can stay. Because he's good, man. He's really good.
-Even if it was a last-ditch, "things can't possibly get any worse" idea, I love that Lovie gave his defensive players some ownership of Saturday's gameplan. Things literally couldn't have gotten much worse, so why not?
And they responded with a good showing, their best in weeks. Did it help that freshman Tanner Morgan was making just his second start? Sure. Did it help that Minnesota was missing its left tackle? Sure. But no excuses have been made for the injuries and off-field issues that have impacted the Illini this year. So in the same way, the good effort counts for something.
-We don't need to talk any more about Corbin, except to say: it's shocking how Garrick McGee could have been so wrong.
-With the redshirt threshold now passed for those who have yet to play a game, it will be interesting to see if any freshmen make their way into the rotation for the final three games. (It's three, right? We're not gonna talk about how it still could mathematically be four, yeah?)
A quick audit of the list says potential new performers could include Ezekiel Holmes, who got into the Minnesota game; Kievan Myers, who, after getting a late start to the season might be rounding into game form?; Kenyon Sims, especially with Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner hurting; and maybe Jaraki Norwood, who has two games to play with before his redshirt is burned.
-As noted in this space basically every week, an interesting thing to watch every Sunday is the line for the coming week.
I know Nebraska has begun to round into form under new coach Scott Frost, but man, they're still 2-7, so to see the Illini open as 19.5-point underdogs was really something. I assumed they'd be underdogs in the game -- road game, Nebraska has a more talented roster, it's hard to call the Illini favorites in basically any matchup -- but nearly three touchdowns is, as a friend put it, disrespectful.
Those who have paid attention I think expect a closer game than that, but then again, we all expected a closer game at Maryland, and we saw how that went. In Lincoln, against a team that's admittedly played better than their 2-7 record, odds of getting a fifth win aren't great.
But after Saturday, at least the next three games should be interesting, for many of the reasons listed above. (It's three, right? We're not gonna talk about how it still could mathematically be four, yeah?)