The Third Game
Ever since we got rid of the Missouri game in St. Louis, the third game of the season has determined our trajectory. Really, since the Missouri series ended in 2010, the 2012 season is the only season where this was not the case. The third game has typically been when we schedule our major conference opponent, and the third game has typically been the one that sets the direction for the season.
Maybe we thought we were going to be good and The Third Game sent us a warning. Maybe we thought we were going to be bad and The Third Game told us that we still had a heartbeat. Maybe, in a season like 2015, we really thought we had something going and then The Third Game was a huge reality check. It's been a consistent theme - let's wait until after The Third Game to see where this thing might be going.
Perhaps we should just go season by season.
With the Missouri series canceled, we begin the 2011 season with Arkansas State and South Dakota State, two fairly easy wins. But we don't really know anything about the team until #22 Arizona State comes to town for a night game. The answer we received? A hard-fought 17-14 win the propelled us into the rankings (and on to a surprising 6-0 start, followed by an 0-6 finish). Disappointing to watch it all fall apart, but as far as Illinois seasons go, a bowl game is a success.
(In 2012 the third game was FCS Charleston Southern, the single worst opponent I've ever witnessed in Memorial Stadium, so we learned nothing.)
We start out by barely beating FCS Southern Illinois (SIU had a fourth and goal with a chance to tie it on the final play of the game). We then shocked Cincinnati in the next game and felt pretty good about where we were heading.
The third game - a loss to Washington at Soldier Field - told us that there was some life in this team but exposed the things that would haunt us all year on defense. That team was maybe a little better than we now give it credit for (the overtime loss at Penn State, hanging with #3 Ohio State at home well into the 4th quarter, the three-point loss to Northwestern), and I think we learned we'd be plucky after that Third Game.
We put together comebacks against Youngstown State and Western Kentucky and went into the game at Washington a little worried. And then two early turnovers (a pick six and a fumble recovery for a touchdown, right?) made it something like 35-5 Washington before we could blink.
This year probably doesn't hold to the theme like the other years. That team did improve as the season wore on and found a way to scratch and claw to six wins and the Heart Of Dallas Bowl. But the Washington loss did let us know that we still had serious talent deficiencies when lined up across from legitimate opponents.
This started our run of "game three tells us EVERYTHING". I remember writing the SOC post before the North Carolina game saying exactly that. We had just beaten Kent State and Western Illinois (hey that sounds familiar) by a combined score of 96-3, and if we were to somehow knock off North Carolina, wow, this team could really take off.
The team didn't take off. It all turned on that North Carolina game. After a sound defeat in Chapel Hill (48-14) we returned to Champaign to beat Middle Tennessee State (27-25 in a game where MTSU lined up to kick the winning field goal as time expired but missed it) and Nebraska (where Nebraska had, quite literally, a 99% chance to win in the final minute but inexplicably threw an incompletion on 3rd down near our redzone - we were out of timeouts, so taking a knee would have run the clock down to :10 seconds left, they could have punted out of the endzone, and then we'd have one play to go 80 yards - instead we drove 63 yards for the winning touchdown with the 50 seconds they gave us) and the rest of the season was a mess. We lost six of the final seven games and missed out on a bowl.
So 2015 holds to this pattern. We're thinking "wow, this season could really go somewhere if we beat North Carolina". We didn't beat North Carolina, and the season didn't go anywhere.
After beating Murray State 52-3, we lost at home in the second game to a Trubisky-led North Carolina team. But I think most of us still had some hope after that loss. Trubisky was really good that game, seemingly converting every single third down pass, so we still had some hope that the season was on track.
And then we lost to Western Michigan 34-10 (at home) and knew that the season was going nowhere. Before the WMU loss, we could play the "you know, if we go 2-1 in the non-conference, I can still find four Big Ten wins if I squint". After the WMU loss, the season was over.
You remember this one I'm sure. We begin with two wins - a comeback over a bad (and young) Ball State team but then a very surprising defensive performance against a we-didn't-know-they-were-bad-yet Western Kentucky team. So we had a lot of hope going into that third game at South Florida. Surprising Game Two win, man, think about this season if we start 3-0!
We didn't start 3-0. We were blown off the field by South Florida (I don't think the 47-23 score accurately reflects the beatdown we received) and the rest of the season, well, you know how the rest of the season went down. We didn't win again.
Yet here we are again, 2-0, and here I am again with my "do you know how quickly my negative attitude turns around if we somehow beat South Florida on Saturday and move to 3-0?" I referenced this in the preview, but I call it my 1999 Louisville feeling.
1997 (winless) and 1998 (3-8) were mostly all bad, so people were skeptical after the 2-0 start in 1999. We had beaten a fairly poor San Diego State team + a bad Arkansas State team. We were going on the road, and Illinois had won exactly one road game (13-10 over Northwestern in 1998) since 1995. So we didn't expect much.
And then we beat a fairly decent (eventually 7-4) Louisville team at their place. Which sent all of our brains into overdrive. We had been at the lowest point I've ever witnessed over the previous three years (yes, lower than last year) - lost 19 games in a row spanning three seasons, 12 of the previous 22 games going into the 1999 season saw the offense score 9 points or less (!!!) - and suddenly here we are 3-0 and actually talking about a bowl game.
And it's funny how that season played out. We get all excited, and then we start Big Ten play 0-3 again (including bad losses to Indiana and Minnesota) and we all sank right back down. Up next on the schedule were #9 Michigan and #2 Penn State, so 3-0 to 3-5 was a lock.
You probably know what followed. We beat Michigan with The Rocky Harvey Game. We lost to Penn State but then we rattled off four straight wins (the final three Big Ten games plus the MicronPC.com Bowl) to finish 8-4. We had learned in Game Three that the program had life.
And now, here we stand right on that edge again. Lose big on Saturday and we know where this is headed. Lose a close one and we maybe have some hope. Win? I'll write a 2,500-word post on Sunday called "FINDING THREE MORE WINS".
Yes, you're right - it won't mean everything. The injuries and suspensions are part of this equation, so we're not going to "know" some things for several weeks. South Florida could be sneaky-bad, so we might misinterpret a win as meaning more than it does. (Or South Florida might be sneaky good, and a bad loss might not mean as much as we think it will).
But I do think it will teach us a lot. Just like The Third Game has taught us about our team this entire decade. So many times, even in bad seasons, we approach The Third Game as a 2-0 football team ready to prove it has crested the hill. Either it's going somewhere (Louisville in 1999 and 2001, Syracuse in 2007, NIU in 2010) or it's not (pretty much every other year). Could it maybe be true this season?