I'm such a liar. We're all liars. We say things as fans, but we don't really mean them. For example, I SAID that all I cared about this season was that we would compete with better programs. That's what we did today, but here I am, what-iffing. We were SO CLOSE to 3-0. 19-7 lead in the fourth quarter close.
And when you get that close, you toss out everything you said before. Here, I'll give you an example.
How many times have I written that if we ever go 7-5 every year I won't complain for a decade? At least five times over the years. And I think I mean that. Live in the range of 6-6 to 8-4 for a full decade and you won't hear a peep from me. I know what "when will we win our next Big Ten game?" feels like, so I will never, ever scoff at 7-5. 7-5 is maybe bouncing back and forth between the Pinstripe Bowl and that San Francisco bowl. We're about to go through our fourth consecutive bowl-less, NCAA Tournament-less school year - how could I ever have that Audacity to complain about 10 consecutive bowls?
Well, I'm pretty sure I'd find a way. We'd go 7-5 and go to the Pinstripe Bowl, and then we'd go 6-6 and head to the Armed Forces Bowl, and the next year we're 8-4 and in the Outback Bowl, and then the next season, when we're sitting at 6-3 on the season and we lose to 4-5 Minnesota. Do you know what I'd probably write? "Look, I know I said I'd never complain about bowls every season, and yes, we've already qualified for our fourth consecutive bowl, but DO YOU KNOW HOW GOOD 7-3 WOULD LOOK RIGHT NOW HAD WE NOT TURNED IT OVER TWICE IN THE SECOND HALF?" I can say I'd never complain, but let's be honest, I'd complain.
That's where I am with my "I just want to compete in these games this season" preseason stance. Compete we did. We took the lead five minutes in and led all the way up until the final two minutes. This isn't the South Florida team from last year with all of their experienced seniors, but this is still a faster, deeper, more-talented football team we faced. They've won 24 of their last 28 games, finished 19th in the final poll of 2016 and 21st in the final poll of 2017, beat Georgia Tech last week, and, thanks to Willie Taggert's player development program (which is why he got the Oregon and then Florida State job), generally has better athletes at most every position. We went up against that team with 7 suspended players, 10 injured players (including our starting quarterback), and 5 total seniors on the field... and almost won. Lost on a busted play with two minutes to go.
On that level, it would be insane to be down about today. Just given that framework - we play more underclassmen than anyone else in the country AND 10 of the 44 players on my preseason two-deep are currently injured or suspended - it's impossible to be upset. Heck, South Florida walked this path as Taggert rebuilt the program - 6-18 his first two years (Lovie was 5-19). It takes time to build a program, and 25-19 losses against teams that have won 24 of their last 28 = major progress.
Yet here I am, still so depressed. Still stuck on losing the fourth quarter 18-0. Still stuck on that South Florida touchdown that I (stupidly) walked to that corner of the endzone to watch. We HAD them - a 12 point lead in the fourth quarter - and we let them off the hook. 3-0 was RIGHT THERE, and with the way the Big Ten West played today (only Minnesota beat an FBS opponent), I'd be sitting here writing 2,500 words on finding six wins. Ugh. I can't believe we let them come all the way back to win.
So I don't think you can count on me to keep my word on that whole "7-5 every year and I'm happy for a decade" thing. I'll always want more. We're finished with the non-conference schedule now, and we all pretty much wanted "beat Kent State and WIU and then compete with South Florida", and we did that, so things are on track, yet here I am, unable to see anything but the L. All week I was frightened of a blowout, especially with the injured/suspended players, and then we played South Florida down to the wire and I'm somehow... agitated?
The lesson: don't listen to me. I'm a liar.
+ The most encouraging thing for me today was my interview with Austin Roberts after the game. Austin has been through a lot - two torn ACL's, a switch from linebacker to fullback to tight end, and three head coaches - so he's seen everything in that locker room. And when a guy like that talks about the difference in the locker room this year vs. years past, I pay attention. I keep looking for signs that the culture is being changed, and this is a big one. Have a listen:
+ Pass rush has to be the #1 concern right now. One sack today (on kind of a busted blitz play where Del'Shawn Phillips came right up the gut untouched). South Florida's five sacks were all huge (especially on the final drive). Illinois' one sack was... not huge.
And I would guess that already puts some heat on first-time DL coach Austin Clark. Most of the defensive line returned this season, and the line that Mike Phair put together last season was significantly better, I'd say. So I'd say the coach with the most heat on him as we approach Big Ten play is clearly Austin Clark. Have to manufacture a pass rush out of the materials we have.
+ Really great game from MJ Rivers, all things considered. 20-29 from a true freshman? Impressive.
I went back and looked at my Rivers write-up from the big football preview back in August. Here's what I said:
On the flipside here, let's talk about MJ Rivers. If we're just looking at raw talent - natural resources, as I like to call it - Rivers is to the arm what Cam Thomas is to the feet. He's the most natural thrower of the five QBs. I'll say it this way, even though it might make you cringe, but hear my point for what I'm saying: if Bill Cubit was the offensive coordinator, I think MJ Rivers would be the starting QB. Cubit was a sucker for a tall QB with a good throwing motion and thought he could build the rest around that. That's what MJ Rivers brings.
So if we were ranking "arm," Rivers would be #1. It's not a Juice arm or even a Lunt arm, but it's an "effortless throwing motion" arm. There's about 73 other things he needs before he's ready to start a game in the Big Ten, but it's a start.
Running the ball? I'd rank him fifth of the five QBs. What could Rod Smith do with the "best" arm and the "worst" feet? Not sure. He'd have to restructure the offense a bit. But that's what Rivers brings.
Which means I'm still adjusting to the coaches choosing Rivers as the backup. I thought I had the Rod Smith offense figured out, but I obviously don't. I figured they would absolutely go with the best runner in every situation, but this is the second game where the offense was led by the best passer off the bench. I know, I know - crazy statement. "They chose the best passer to play quarterback". I really did think they'd make those decisions based on what the QB can do running the ball.
+ The biggest concern remains the same: yards. We gave up 626 yards today. Take away USF's missed field goals, 14 penalties, and two turnovers and 626 probably translates into 54 points. Instead, with all of that, 25 points.
Which makes it two weeks in a row where I'm worried about yards. Last week, Western Illinois put up the same total yards as Illinois, meaning that wasn't really a 34-14 game. Without the turnovers and the blocked punt, we might have been tied late in the fourth.
This week, that wasn't a 25-19 game. Yards would suggest that it was maybe a 54-20 game. Yes, we got the turnovers again, but you can't count on that. And you can't count on your opponent to put up 14 penalties, either. It's nice when those things happen, but the main thing you can control is the yards you give up (and put up). And so far this season, we're not winning that battle.
Which means that this game wasn't as encouraging as it looked. When the turnovers dry up (turnovers always dry up, especially when you struggle rushing the passer), look out. That 54-20 game is coming.
See what I mean? I lied. I said I'd be encouraged if we were competitive against solid opponents this season and as of right now, well, I'm not.